Kingdom of Ife, Innovation & Culture

Weekly #097 | Building Your Business with Ancient Wisdom: A Guide for Today's Micropreneurs

Table of Contents

The Kingdom of Ife re-imagined with ChatGPT 4


As a person fascinated by culture, mythology and anthropology in general, I’m often fascinated by things that are a little outside of the box. My first exposure to the Kingdom of Ife was through a book I bought at a store in New Orleans called Voodoo Authentica. It was a book based around the origination of Vodou in a neighbouring ancient state called the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern day Benin) a story for another time, or another newsletter. But my reading of Vodou’s history inspired further curiosity into the history of these historical states in West Africa, which brings us to this fortnight’s Micro Empire.

The Kingdom of Ife, also known as Ife-Ife, was a wealthy, powerful and cosmopolitan city-state that thrived in what is now Nigeria, between the 12th and 15th centuries. It’s a fascinating historical state, not just for its size but also for the immense artistic, cultural and spiritual impact it had and continues to hold for the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

The Ife mastered the art of bronze and terracotta sculpture, creating art pieces that are so lifelike and emotive that they have been a source of inspiration for historians and art lovers alike for centuries. Artists under the patronage of the Kingdom’s leaders created art so unique and advanced, they were ahead of their time.

1 — Geographical Territory

Nestled in the heart of today’s southwestern Nigeria, the ancient Kingdom of Ife was not vast by any modern standards but did possess significant territory. This region was rich in history and spirituality as the cultural centre of the Yoruba people.

While the Kingdom of Ife’s geographic and demographic size isn’t precisely detailed in historical records, it was a significant settlement by the 12th - 14th centuries, which suggests it may have had a substantial population to go with it. From historical records, we understand the city’s layout featured houses with potsherd pavements reflecting a level of sophisticated urban planning.

The compact size of Ife’s territory also tells a truth familiar to today’s micropreneurs: that the impact of a place or a business isn’t measured by its square footage but by the depth of its influence. In Ife’s case, their geographical footprint was the foundation for its legacy that has inspired countless generations and proved that true greatness often comes from the smallest of beginnings.

2 — Population & Economic Scale

Economically, Ife was a hub of regional trade networks, which helped it flourish. The artistic production, particularly in bronze and terracotta, suggests a society that valued and patronized the arts, with the assumption that these items were used in trade or as symbols of political or religious power. The decline of Ife’s artistic production in the 15th century coincides with a shift in political and economic power to neighbouring kingdoms like Benin and Oyo, suggesting changing dynamics in the region’s trade and political landscapes.

If you can imagine Ife’s streets, markets and workshops as a bustling township of activity, it’s clear that this city-state was not just a cluster of buildings. It was a vibrant hub of commerce and craftsmanship. While its economy was renowned for its artistic output, it wasn’t just about their internal prosperity but their refined trade networks that spread across regions.

The artists and craftsmen of Ife, much like today’s micropreneurs, didn’t just serve their local community, they reached out beyond their borders, impacting economies far beyond their immediate geographical confines. Their work, a blend of cultural expression and economic enterprise reflects a dynamic society where the population of Ife was deeply interconnected and influential, turning Ife into a micro-empire of economic and artistic significance in the ancient world.

3 — Influence & Autonomy

Even though it was a relatively small city-state by today's standards, Ife's influence spread far and wide. It was the cultural and spiritual heart of the Yoruba people, showing us the power of identity and branding. Just as Ife carved out a niche for itself through its spiritual significance and artistic achievements, so can a modern micro-empire by focusing on what makes it unique.

The rulers of Ife, known as the Ooni, played important roles in both the spiritual and political spheres, accentuating the intertwined nature of religion and governance in Ife society. Their strategic interactions with neighbouring states, like the ones I mentioned above, truly highlight the importance of building networks and alliances. This ancient kingdom might not have had social media, but its ability to influence and be influenced by its neighbours is a timeless strategy for growth and survival.

Ife’s networking capability was rooted in a solid understanding of its cultural value and strategic geographic position, amplifying its impact. For modern enterprises, especially those of us in the community-tech space, Ife’s example illustrates the important of building and nurturing networks that extend beyond our immediate environment leveraging digital tools and platforms to create a global footprint.

4 — Learning from the Kingdom of Ife

So, what's in it for you? Embrace the mindset of Ife: focus on your unique strengths, whether it's innovation, culture, resilience, or networking. Just like this ancient micro-empire, you can create something timeless and impactful, no matter the size of your venture. Take inspiration from Ife and build your micro-empire with creativity, adaptability, and a touch of magic.

The lasting legacy of the Kingdom of Ife is partly due to its deep engagement with their community’s spiritual and cultural life. The kingdom’s leaders and artists created works that resonated deeply with the people’s values and aspirations, securing their relevance and reverence over the centuries to come. This principle of deeply engaging with one’s community and understanding its needs and values appears crucial for any endeavour aiming for a lasting impact.

Remember, greatness doesn't always come from size, but from the depth of impact. Keep crafting, keep innovating, and who knows? Your micro-empire might just be the next big thing in the history books of tomorrow.

Applicable lessons for micropreneurs

  • Innovation and Quality over Quantity: Just like the Kingdom of Ife found success through its innovative art and craftsmanship, micropreneurs should focus on creating unique, high-quality products or services that stand out in their market.

  • Embrace and Integrate Cultural Identity: Ife's strong cultural identity was a key aspect of its influence and legacy. Micropreneurs can learn from this by weaving their personal or local culture, and dare I say - personality, into their brand, making it distinctive and memorable.

  • Building Networks and Strategic Partnerships: Ife's influence and trade networks beyond its immediate geographical area highlight the importance of building connections and partnerships. For micropreneurs, leveraging networks can expand reach, resources, and opportunities for growth.

No case study today, instead I would love to leave you with some images of the wonderful craftsmanship from the Kingdom of Ife and their neighbours. Many of the artworks that were created in Ife have become iconic symbols of the Yoruba region and national unity. The second image below Ori Olokun was such a significant piece that its likeness was used as the logo for the All-Africa Games that were held in Lagos, Nigeria back in 1973 and has now been adopted as the chosen logo for many educational, financial and commercial institutions as well as a universal symbol of African heritage.

Ife head: Brass head of a ruler (Ori Olokun), 1300–1450, brass, made in Ife, 35 cm high

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