Splitting Hairs

The booming wig trade between India and Africa

01 January 2018
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

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.”

Amrutha Manjunath is an intern at The Caravan.

Keywords: India Africa discrimination race extensions wigs hair