Splitting Hairs

The booming wig trade between India and Africa

The sale of wigs and extensions to Africans in Delhi is part of a growing hair trade between India and Africa. Much of the supply of Indian hair is collected at temples or salons. soltan frédéric / sygma / getty images
01 January, 2018

In the narrow lanes of south Delhi’s large, bustling INA market, among the shops bursting with uniforms, dupattas, fruits and vegetables, several signboards advertise human hair. On an afternoon in August, I entered a shop whose sign read “Pankaj International Human Hair,” climbed down a short flight of stairs, and found the owner, Pankaj Chitkara, in the basement. He was measuring brown hair extensions with help from his young assistant, and recording the lengths in a notebook. He showed me the six types of human hair he sold—straight, curly, natural wave, bulk hair, deep wave and wavy. They came in 11 different colours, including jet black, deep red and platinum blonde.

He said the demand for Indian hair—which is known for its strength and thickness—among Africans in Delhi has been growing since 2004. The shopkeeper of HSE Hair—a wholesale store in Patel Nagar—also told me that her most “regular customers” are people employed by embassies of African countries, who usually buy extensions in bulk.

The sale of hair to Africans in Delhi is part of a much larger hair trade between India and Africa. According to an article on Scroll.in, India’s hair export market was worth around Rs 2,500 crore in 2015, when the piece was written, and was growing annually by 10 to 30 percent. The article also reported that the market for wigs, weaves and extensions in Africa is worth about $6 billion per year. Though this trade may be growing, some people, including several African women I spoke with in Delhi, are choosing to reject wigs and extensions, acknowledging the political implications of using imported substitutes for natural hair.

Much of the massive supply of Indian hair comes from temples and salons. About ten million devotees get their heads shaved every year at the Tirumala Venkateshwara temple in Tirupathi, a city in Andhra Pradesh and a famous pilgrimage site. The hair is preserved in godowns, cleaned and segregated by size and density, and then sold online through e-auctions. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams, or TTD—an independent trust that oversees the finances of the temple—collects an average of nearly 500 kilograms of human hair every day, and in 2015–16 it generated a revenue of more than Rs 200 crores through e-auctions. Generally, the hair from temples that is collected and sold is of “Remy” quality, which means it is cut in a way that ensures it is intact and all the follicles are facing in the same direction. Considered to be superior in quality, it is sold by TTD for about Rs 25,000 per kilogram. Regular hair, however, which is picked up as waste from households or salons, is priced lower—at around Rs 3,000 per kilogram.

When I met Purity Chinagorm, a Nigerian studying business administration in Delhi, she was wearing a curly blonde wig with greenish tints that matched her olive shirt. Hurrying through INA market with groceries in both hands, she told me that her natural hair is short and clumpy, and very difficult to manage in warm weather. “You cannot do many styles with it,” she said, but added, almost warningly, “It is not that our hair is not beautiful.”

Human hair sold in Africa becomes more expensive depending on the country it is imported from, how long it lasts, its ability to stay untangled, and its thickness—inevitably, then, it becomes a status symbol. Fiona Achieng from Kenya, an undergraduate student at Ashoka University in Haryana, told me in October that the price of a wig can “go up to 100,000 Kenyan shillings” in her country—approximately Rs 63,000, and the most popular imports were from India, Brazil and Puerto Rico. “It’s a class thing, so wealthier women would wear straight hair, and Indian hair,” Harriet Kumbani—who is from Malawi and also enrolled at Ashoka—told me, adding that Indian, Peruvian and Brazilian hair was the most expensive in markets in Malawi.

Both women went on to explain that straight hair has long been the standard of beauty in the countries where they were from. Kumbani, suggesting that this stemmed from a colonial hangover, said, “My mother was telling me that when they were kids, they didn’t have straighteners. They would take hot rocks and use it to straighten their hair, so I guess that’s what they thought was beautiful.” Achieng explained that since she was a child, she has noticed ads depicting women with long wavy hair, and public personalities who do not wear their natural hair, perpetuating the notion that straight hair is superior. “It started around the 1980s, when my mother was a teenager, and people stopped embracing the Afro,” Achieng said. “That’s when people started relaxing their hair”—using chemical lotions with high alkali levels which can cause hair thinning, scalp burns, and even increase the risk of cystic fibroids—“and everyone started using this gel, which doesn’t really make your hair straight, just more curly and long. So the gel started the move and then there came weaves, wigs, and so on.”

Like skin colour, hair has also been a basis for discrimination against black people. Last year, protests broke out at schools and universities across South Africa, sparked after a 13-year-old girl, Zulaikha Patel from Pretoria—who has had to change schools three times because of her afro—was told to straighten her “messy” hair by her school. The same year, “The Good Hair” study by Perception Institute—a non-profit think tank conducting scientific research on race and gender—revealed that one in five black women in the United States feel pressured to straighten their hair in professional situations. Unsurprisingly, then, the South African writer Danielle Bowler, in an article on the website Eyewitness News, said that black women’s hair is often reduced to a discussion pitting natural hair against weaves, which ignores the larger issue: “While some women might not choose their hairstyle based on an overt political decision, the choices available to us are themselves inescapably political.”

However, a movement to embrace natural hair has burgeoned in the last five years, in—but not limited to—Africa and the Americas. The Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro-Wawa’s 2012 documentary Transition attempted to capture this trend, and cited that health and self-discovery were among the most common reasons for women deciding to “go natural.” Achieng told me that the movement is still ongoing, with several media personalities in Kenya cutting off their relaxed hair, and accepting rather than fighting their natural hair. “In the last five years, people have been cutting off their straight hair and going back to their natural hair,” Kumbani said about hairstyles in Malawi. “And this time, it is here to stay, because even people who wear wigs now have their natural hair underneath.”