A few years ago, I was getting ready to go get a haircut when my father, who was visiting from Nigeria where he worked, asked me to keep the hair I’d chop off and bring it back to him. “He’s got to be kidding,” I thought. Turns out, he wasn’t.
My dad actually wanted to gift my chopped-off hair to a friend who could then wear it. Now, if someone gifted me human hair, we probably wouldn’t be friends anymore. But in Nigeria, where women spend hundreds of dollars on wigs, weaves and hair extensions to get their hair to look the way they want, it makes for a gift few other things can match. The demand in Nigeria, and other African countries, is such that some estimates place the value of Africa’s dry hair market at over $6 billion a year, and growing quite rapidly.
With its annual exports of human hair weighing in at about 4,000 tonnes, earning $800 million annually, India has always been one of the biggest players in the dry hair industry worldwide. Now, a new trend has made “bone straight” hair the hottest hairstyle among Nigerian women, in turn causing the demand for Indian hair to shoot up.
A friend running a hair transformation business in the city of Lagos in Nigeria tells me, “Right now there is a lot of hype around it, especially with what I like to call the ‘bone straight syndrome’. If you don’t have hair in that style, you’re not really on trend.”
Bone straight hair is hair that is dead straight, appears flat from the top to the bottom, and cannot be curled using any tools.
“The bone straight hair trend started after a show called Big Brother Naija [the Nigerian version of the Big Brother franchise] took place last year. A lot of the housemates had bone straight hair and people loved the way they looked with it,” Anne Ogechi, the 23-year-old founder of Marvic Empire, a human hair business that deals in the import and sales of authentic human hair in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, tells VICE. “When hair vendors noticed this trend, they started promoting this hair a lot and people just caught on to it. There is also the impression that a lady with bone straight hair is classier than one without it as the bone straight hair gives a certain look.”
The overwhelming demand has made bone straight wigs the most expensive in the market, costing anywhere between 50,000-300,000 naira per wig (approximately $157-787). The women who can afford to shell out these big bucks also demand equally high quality products, which is what Indian hair is known for.
“In general, there is a demand for hair of Asian origin because it is naturally straight hair that hasn't been processed to stay straight,” says 34-year-old wigs and hair colour expert Fatimah Akinsanya, who’s also the founder of Hairapy Wigs and Hair Extensions in Lagos.
Indian hair especially is known to be lush and bouncy, making it possible for those in the business to manipulate it in any way they want. Apart from straight, five other types of Indian hair are sold—curly, natural wave, bulk hair, deep wave and wavy. The variety and versatility have also caused people to accord a certain level of trust in hair sourced from India, since they know what they’re getting is unique and worth the high price they’re paying. However, the secret to why hair from India is more popular than that from its many emerging competitors also lies in where it originates.
Most of the hair that is exported from India comes from temples and salons. At the Venkateswara Temple, in the hill town of Tirumala in Tirupati, a city in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, 1,320 barbers shave an average of 40 heads per day. It is common for Hindu believers to tonsure their hair at a temple as a young child, and also to celebrate a wish coming true, such as the birth of a baby or the curing of an illness. The hair so collected is preserved, segregated based on size and density, and auctioned off by the temple trust. In February 2019, one such auction brought in $1.6m from 157 tons of hair.
Most donor hair is raw and has never been treated by chemicals, and in some cases, never even been cut. The hair collected from temples forms the Remy variety of Indian hair—often the highest grade of human hair because it retains its natural look, having been cut in a way that the hair cuticles face the same directions.
“One thing I love about raw Indian hair is the uniqueness of each bundle, as they come from different donors, and also how versatile it is,” Bridget Nwannunu, 26, tells VICE. “You can make any hair texture from it, but you wouldn’t try that with processed hair.” Nwannunu owns Bree Hair, an online business in Nigeria that deals strictly in Indian hair. She’s also an advocate for raw hair from India, which is more expensive than processed hair, but also higher in quality, fetching about $140 for 30 inch-long hair that weighs 100 grams. Considering that sleek, long bone straight hair has Nigerian women lusting after them, the longer the hair, the higher the price it fetches.
Hair vendors in Nigeria don’t just source hair from India, but pretty much everywhere. Brazilian hair is known for its sheen and durability; Vietnamese, for its bounce; Mongolian, because it is easy to curl and manipulate. One seller in Lagos offers “Italian posh hair” which is supposed to be odour-free. In recent years, demand for “luxury” virgin hair from South American countries such as Brazil and Peru has also accelerated in markets where foreign hair is prized way above local women’s own hair. Even as the demand (and supply) for hair from these countries shoots up, there is a dark underbelly to this trade. Much of the hair sold in Nigeria under the “Brazilian” label might not have originated in Brazil at all.
“Brazilians wouldn’t want to sell off their real hair, which means when you think you’re buying real Brazilian hair, it might just be Indian hair, or artificial, processed hair from Brazil. One big truth is that other countries come to Indian temples to buy hair in bulk, then process it, and call it hair from their own country,” Nwannunu reveals.
To match the growing demand, human hair dealers have been going to great lengths to disguise Indian hair as Brazilian or Peruvian. In 2013, customs officials at the São Paulo airport claimed to have impounded $400,000 worth of long ponytails of Indian hair tied up with rubber bands being smuggled into Brazil.
Why Nigerian women go to such great lengths to get their hands on straight human hair can be traced back to many reasons.
“A lot of women don’t know how to care for their curly, kinky hair. They believe straight hair is easier to keep, and style on the go,” says Farida Yahya, 33, founder of Lumo Naturals, an Abuja-based natural hair care solutions brand, and author of Redefining Beautiful, a book that discusses the realities of starting a natural hair business. “Growing up, all the pop culture we had access to, be it TV or magazines, also made references to straight hair, painting it as a desirable adornment for every woman.”
African feminists have also long argued that wearing wigs made of long, straight foreign hair is giving in to Western ideals of beauty, and the current bone straight trend only adds to this.
“I believe that as African women, we need to embrace our natural hair. There is so much culture and history that our hair represents. Even the idea that it is hard to manage or that it doesn’t fit into certain beauty standards is something we have internalised to the point of believing that we are not beautiful, and that affects our sense of self-worth,” Yahya says.
But even as the movement to embrace natural hair takes flight, women around Nigeria can still be seen sporting shiny wigs and hair extensions that they see as feminine and elegant. Some even believe that the choice, and ability, to adorn themselves with foreign hair helps them accentuate their natural beauty, as opposed to hiding it.
Akinsanya says, “I always encourage my clients to also take care of their natural hair underneath their wigs or extensions. Embracing your natural hair does not mean you have to say no to extensions or a good wig when you feel like trying something new, or taking a break. It’s a matter of choice and it might even make you feel better about yourself.”
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