The Dr. Okonkwo Speech That Got Everyone Talking…




Let me first begin by thanking all of you for being here today- both the contingent from our partners, UNIZIK and its acclaimed Business School- as well as titans of industry and commerce  from the great commercial city of Onitsha. Your presence here underscores the importance you attach to this project and its potential impact in enhancing the already globally celebrated indomitable entrepreneurial spirit of our people. 

Onitsha, in every sense is a historic city, which offered our people their earliest engagements with European traders- first the Portuguese in the early to mid-18th century and later imperial Britain (initially through the monopoly of the Royal Niger Company), in the closing years of the same century. The consolidation of British political power in what became the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria pushed away the Portuguese and entrenched British commercial interest through the monopoly of its Royal Niger Company and its subsidiaries like John Holt, United African Company (UAC), Kingsway Supermarkets, among others. These transactions took place at a location by the river, in the general area called Otu Nkwo Eze, which later became Main Market. The British monopoly was such that it did not allow non-British products into the Main Market leading to the establishment of a new market called Ochanja, which derogatorily means something of low value; a place for inferior products. 

The early commercial competition was primarily between Britain and other European countries with local businessmen either completely excluded or simply left to play the role of middle men. But that changed with the intervention of an eccentric English man and merchant, John Murray Stuart Young, who upon acquiring so much wealth fought the cartels in an effort to open up opportunities for native businesses. Merchant, Poet and a Patron of the Arts, he inspired and supported aspiring writers such as the young Nnamdi Azikiwe such that Zik dedicated his first book of poems titled Meditations to him. Stuart Young so endeared himself to the people of Onitsha that they gave him the title of Odoziaku, and upon his death in 1939 organized a most lavish funeral for him. Given that he had no wife and children, local mythology has it that he had befriended the mermaid of the River Niger (Mama Iwota) to remain single in return for great wealth. 

In the immediate post-independent years, Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael Okpara undertook the massive construction of the Main Market that made it the biggest in West Africa. Unfortunately, the market suffered massive destruction during the civil war and was rebuilt by then administrator of East Central State, Ukpabi Asika, who also started its decentralization to ease congestion; a policy that has continued to date. Today, Onitsha markets extend beyond Onitsha metropolis to such adjoining towns as Ogbaru, Obosi,  Ogidi, Ogbunike, Nkwelle Ezunaka, among others. 

Evidently, since its lowly beginnings, Onitsha has maintained its pre-eminent status as the commercial hub of the south east of Nigeria and arguably the biggest cluster of markets in the entire West African region.  

But Onitsha was not just about commerce. Perhaps, many of us are not aware that this great city has also earned international fame by way of colourful pidgin English pamphlets that were very popular between the 1950s and 1970s aptly called Onitsha Market Literature. I know that many of us in this room came of age with such publications like:  How to Make Friends with Girls; How to talk to Girls and Win their Love; Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend; How to Speak in Public; Beware of Women; Veronica my Daughter, and many other popular titles there were the literary staple of the emergent city dwellers. 

May interest you to know that the Onitsha Market Literature has become a global brand studied in U.S. and European universities primarily through the great scholarly writings of the now late Professor Emmanuel Obiechina, a Cambridge trained professor of Literature and former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka who is from Nkpor. While the Onitsha market literature titles are by no means literary classics as those of us familiar with it can attest, they are today primarily studied as sociological texts that help offer insights into the social conditions of Onitsha, as an emergent commercial city. 

As some of you may be aware, the Onitsha Main Market holds a very special place in my heart, as that was where I had my first stint in business, although briefly, and my encounter with modernity. I was born in Gombe in December 1965 and was a baby in arms when my family, like all Igbos, fled the north as a result of the pogrom that ultimately led to the civil war.

Following the war, my father, like every Igbo male, picked up the pieces and re-stablished himself at the Main Market dealing in beverages or what our people commonly call provisions. Unfortunately, few years later, he took ill forcing me to combine my high school education with managing the business and his apprentices. That meant I went to school in the morning and continued at the Main Market in the afternoon and vice versa. 

That basic trading experience, in many respects, helped hone my business instincts and also instilled in me a deep sense of industry and hard work that have defined my life’s journey to date. 

I remain eternally grateful to God for his immense blessings to me since those humble beginnings at the Main Market. Thus, when the UNIZIK Business School in July 2019 honoured me with the Philanthropist of the Year Award, it was only natural for me to try to give back by endowing a major research project on the future of Igbo entrepreneurship, drawing primarily from the role iconic the Onitsha Markets have played in the socio-economic transformation of the Igbo nation, particularly since the civil war; a phenomenon that best underscores the globally acclaimed ingenuity and indomitable spirit of our people. The research project is made possible through the instrumentality of the Pro-Value Humanity Foundation, a charity which I founded to be primarily concerned with recreating humanity through authentic human-centred development and reorientation of values.  

The research project is expected to, among other things; critically interrogate Igbo entrepreneurship culture and the apprenticeship system around which it is historically built, with a view to reinventing both in the light of emerging realities. In 2017, the popular American Online media organization TED Talk hailed the Igbo business apprenticeship culture as one of the greatest and most innovative Venture Capital schemes in the world, albeit informally. The apprenticeship scheme in its original model has, undoubtedly, served us well up to this point. However, the world of Commerce is drastically changing and we must reinvent the apprenticeship system to be responsive to the business and industrial needs of today, along with the skills acquisition and value chain such new processes require. Ejuna Kpulu, Okpulu ikelikie

Such reinvention may also include mentorship, partnerships, financial assistance by way of soft loans, loan guarantees, among others between established businesses and emerging ones. These will help continue the Ora Nwezue Aku philosophy that was a key driving force of the apprenticeship scheme. As we all can agree, the only thing constant in life is change and we can either innovate and adjust to the times or gradually slide into irrelevance.  

Further, it is vital that the project also help identify emergent entrepreneurial and investment opportunities, including hi-tech and biotech start-ups with potential value chains that current generation Igbo Entrepreneurs can key into to help drive the re-industrialization of Anambra State in particular and the south east in general. Unfortunately, many of our stupendously wealthy businessmen, along with their heirs, lack the knowledge about emergent investment opportunities that will not only make them richer, but also create jobs, hence they stick with merchandizing that got them to where they are. For the rapid economic transformation of our state, we must not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones and embrace innovative investment opportunities, the likes that this study will hopefully provide. In conducting the study, I encourage the researchers to focus on emergent investment opportunities that are particularly unique to Anambra State and the south east, which are our primary areas of interest. 

Prof. Nonyelu and his team from UNIZIK Business School will shortly speak in some more details about the research project and how they plan to conduct it. As seasoned researchers, I’ve no doubt they will do justice to the subject. 

Suffice it to add here that we cannot be prouder of the great city of Onitsha given its prominent historical place as the commercial nerve centre of the south east. We are confident that the result of this research project, if fully harnessed, will help put the city and Anambra state on a pre-eminent development pedestal that other states in the south east and indeed the entire country will want to copy. 

As Anambrarians in particular and Igbos in general, nothing is beyond us if we commit to it both individually and collectively as a people. I can’t wait to see us key into the findings of this research project as a way of revitalizing entrepreneurship among our people. We must as usual seize the opportunity. 

Thanks everyone for coming.

By Ibu Anyi Danda! 

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