On a recent bucket list safari in Africa, I had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. The brief encounter with their culture was a highlight in a trip filled with highlights, and it struck me that there is a lot we can learn from this very different lifestyle.
You have likely seen pictures of the Maasai – the tall, lithe herds-people wrapped in their colorful blankets or shukas living much the way they did four centuries ago, before European nations began carving up Africa. Much has been written about their culture that they have stubbornly maintained even as global civilization crowds in all around.
To be clear, the Maasai life is not an easy one, nor should we blindly copy all of its aspects. I am sure that walking dawn to dusk behind a herd of cattle is not for everyone – not to mention the lack of running water. Maasai children rarely attend school beyond grade five, and too often young girls never attend school at all.
Despite what we might consider flaws, there is undoubtedly much that is honorable about these very proud people – an internal consistency in their values and practices that is worthy of respect (if not downright awe). It also struck me that there some lessons from the Maasai’s success that can be transferred to business strategy.
What can the Maasai teach us about strategy?
1. The best strategies are both Simple and Elegant
We have long argued that a great strategy is elegant in its simplicity – this certainly describes the Maasai way of life. Anyone who has ever seen a lone Maasai tribesman standing stoically with his staff against an African sunset understands the elegance. And clearly, the word ‘simple’ could be used to describe many of the aspects of their life.
However, as with a good business strategy, the Maasai have found the right simplicity ‘on the other side of complexity’ that acknowledges the realities of the world without overcomplicating execution. For example, the average Maasai family unit lives in a hut that is barely ten feet by ten feet, so not a single square foot is wasted. There are two sleeping niches, one for the parents and one for the (up to six) children. There is a small fireplace for heat, as cooking is over a communal fire. And there is a single shelf for belongings that is high enough to be out of reach of the sick goat or calf that might occasionally spend the night indoors. While unbelievably basic in our view, this simple space provides all the necessities, and with belongings easy to transport and construction time kept to a minimum, it allows for relatively easy moves, when conditions dictate.
2. Strategy and a coherent business model are both critical to success
Maasai are often described as ‘warriors,’ and most of us would think twice before attacking a tribe who routinely face down lions with just a wooden spear and a leather shield. But the success of the Maasai as a people is due mainly to the superiority of their business model, not their success on the battlefield.
While technically semi-nomadic, the Maasai mostly live in small villages – clusters of small huts, encircled by fences made of sharp sticks. The courtyard in the village is the nighttime home for their herds, protecting them (and Maasai children!) from roaming lions and leopards.
Much has been written about the symbiotic relationship between the Maasai and the cattle they tend. Cows provide nutrition through their milk, meat and occasionally, blood. In addition, cow dung is mixed with straw to make traditional huts that are stronger than those made with mud alone, and cow hides are used to make shoes and belts. In fact, cattle are the primary store of wealth and source of status for the Maasai.
Less known is that Maasai also keep goats and sheep. Sheep are used primarily for wool to make their traditional garments, and goats are used for milk and meat. Importantly, the stakes are lower when guarding these flocks, so children (often as young as 10) hone their herding skills with goats and sheep before being trusted with the precious cattle.
Further, knowing that they will be in one place for six months or more, the Maasai plant and harvest vegetables to help round out their diet. Over time, this model allowed the Maasai to outlast local hunter gatherer tribes, who were much more susceptible to famine and drought. To this day, despite a lack of what we would recognize as modern medical care, the Maasai have a birth rate and child survival rate higher than many African countries. Like in business, coherence of the strategy and business model, not copying every passing fad, is the key to long term success. And like a good business model, culture is the ‘glue’ that allows it to survive, in this case passing it along from generation to generation.
3. Strategies should be consistent, but tactics should be updated
As we’ve already said, the basic elements of the Maasai culture and lifestyle have changed little in four hundred years. However, if one looks closely, it becomes clear that the Maasai have adopted some elements of modern society that fit in their model.
For example, it is not unusual to see a herdsman with a smart phone. In fact, we saw one enterprising young man with a notebook-sized solar panel to ensure that his battery wouldn’t die. A smart phone not only helps the time go by more quickly while walking with the herd, but is invaluable in calling for help if something goes wrong miles from the village.
In a similar vein, some Maasai now ride motorbikes. Off-road bikes can travel easily on the well-worn footpaths the Maasai favor and can dramatically reduce the time required for a weekly run to the local market. Interestingly, the Maasai almost never drive cars, as this would require far bigger changes in their infrastructure.
4. Strategies are only as good as their assumptions
We have always argued that strategies and their supporting business models need to be clear about their assumptions and when these assumptions change, it is time to update the strategy. In the case of the Maasai, their way of life requires access to communal grazing land. In Africa this is under attack both as wildlife parks are expanded (and actively policed) and as urban areas grow in size and population.
Increasing private ownership of land limits the growth of the Maasai lifestyle and may eventually put it at risk. In a sense, the fence is an enemy of the Maasai that may prove more formidable than the lion.
It would be easy to dismiss the Maasai and their seemingly primitive culture as an historical aberration, one that will surely fade away as soon as their children discover television and free wifi. And yet, the Maasai have persevered, the majority of their offspring choosing to stay with the lifestyle despite its obvious hardships.
In this fast-paced world where we are often tempted to react to the latest fad or buzzword, there is a lot we can learn from the Maasai. If you ever get the chance to spend some time with these noble people, I hope you will consider it a privilege.