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Warren Buffett has a lot in common with the Masai people of the Serengeti in Africa. I’m writing this after spending the last four days in and around the Masai, who have a firmer grasp of free market business practices than most people in Europe and North America do. Here are the 7 business lessons my traveling partners and I have learned from the Masai:

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  1. Be close to your customer. 40-60 Toyota Land Cruisers rattling down the typical Tanzanian dirt road each day, so the formerly nomadic Masai moved their fenced villages within 100 meters of the road to attract drive-by tourists, tourists who otherwise wouldn’t venture 50 feet from their guide’s car.
  2. Relentlessly pursue low cost manufacturing. Every village has beaded trinkets for sale, all hand made by the women of the family.  Since women are viewed as possessions in their culture and barely above slave labor, cost of manufacturing is just the cost of materials plus the value of the woman’s time to do something else. The Masai practice is harsh, but the principle is sound.
  3. Give plant tours. Nothing builds brand loyalty better than plant tours.  The Masai “plant” is a round hut made of Acacia branches and dried dung, but customers will eagerly buy anything after a tour of a dung hut.
  4. Attractive advertising. The Masai wear visually arresting blue or red blankets. You can spot one 2 miles away. In fact, you can hardly take your eyes off a Masai warrior. If the Masai wore muted browns and greens, blending in with the vegetation, nobody would cast them a second glance. 
  5. Negotiate. Everybody loves a deal, especially if it is a huge discount off list price. A wire and bead giraffe might start at $20 and end at $5. Both parties are happy, because the buyer got a 75% discount while the Masai seller made a killing. Of course, it only cost 25 cents to manufacture.
  6. Product placement. Just like Coke products in the latest Tom Cruise movie, young Masai warriors will find a herd of, say, giraffes and place themselves squarely between the Land Cruisers’ cameras and the lanky giraffes. $1 from each camera later, the Land Cruiser rolls off, tourists happy they got a photo of giraffes and Masai warriors and it only cost them $6. Meanwhile, the warriors are $6 richer and ready for the next car.  Brilliant.
  7. Everybody is in sales. I’ve never seen an entire organization so finely trained in sales. From young to old, women to men, boys and girls, everybody is coordinated to maximize the customer experience and extract the maximum revenue possible from those happy customers.

So where did Warren Buffett get his ideas about the free market and capitalism? When we take away the noise of Western commerce, the business practices become easily apparent and remarkably simple. I haven’t seen Buffett wearing blankets, but I’d wonder if he’s been to the Serengeti.