With all the skill of a master weaver at a loom, Esther Ogble stands under a parasol in the sprawling Wuse market in Nigeria’s capital and spins synthetic fibre into women’s hair.
While still largely based in the informal economy, the African haircare business has become a multi-billion dollar industry that stretches to China and India and has drawn global giants such as L’Oreal and Unilever.
Hairdressers such as Ogble are a fixture of markets and taxi ranks across Africa, reflecting both the continent’s rising incomes and demand from hair-conscious women.
“I need to braid my hair so that I will look beautiful,” said 25-year-old Blessing James, wincing as Ogble combed and tugged at the back of her head before weaving in a plait that fell well past the shoulder.
While reliable Africa-wide figures are hard to come by, market research firm Euromonitor International estimates $1.1 billion of shampoos, relaxers and hair lotions were sold in South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon alone last year.
It sees the liquid haircare market growing by about 5 percent from 2013 to 2018 in Nigeria and Cameroon, with a slight decline for the more mature South African market.
This does not include sales from more than 40 other sub-Saharan countries, or the huge “dry hair” market of weaves, extensions and wigs crafted from everything from synthetic fibre to human or yak hair.
Some estimates put Africa’s dry hair industry at as much as $6 billion a year; Nigerian singer Muma Gee recently boasted that she spends 500,000 naira ($3,100) on a single hair piece made of 11 sets of human hair.
The report also included the staggering numbers for hair products in the United States: In one clue to the potential for Africa, market research firm Mintel put the size of the black haircare market in the United States at $684 million in 2013, estimating that it could be closer to $500 billion if weaves, extensions and sales from independent beauty stores or distributors are included. What is certain is that Africa’s demand for hair products, particularly those made from human hair, is only growing.