This Week in Asia

Human hair: a growing business in China (and Pakistan is taking a cut)

Seven-year-old Hassan Khan is one of Pakistan's tens of thousands of homeless children who each day pick through garbage on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital, in search of human hair.

Unknown to him, Khan is part of a global trade in hair that was estimated to be worth more than US$81 million in 2017. Pakistan is now among the world's top suppliers: the Ministry of Commerce said last month that it had exported at least US$1.6 million in human hair over the past five years.

"Hair is among my daily items, which also include plastics and other materials," said Khan, adding that he is paid about US$0.70 per day for his efforts.

Rao Shahzad has been exporting hair to China from the southern port city of Karachi for the last decade. By his estimate, nearly 3 million people in Pakistan are associated with the human hair industry - and he sees more potential.

"If the business is done properly with government support, then this industry could give 10 times more profit compared to its current gains because the length and quality of hair in Pakistan is very good," Shahzad, 46, said.

Islamabad might be listening. The Pakistani press reported that the ministry's January report "was the first time that the lower house of parliament was briefed about Pakistan's hair export industry for its significant commercial value".

Bales of hair in Karachi are ready to be shipped to China. Photo: Haroon Janjua

The ministry said much of Pakistan's hair ends up in China, where it is used in the booming cosmetics sector for wigs, weaves and hair extensions. The Dawn newspaper reported that Pakistan exported more than 105,000kg of human hair to China over the past five years.

A global export website ranks Pakistan as the world's fifth-largest exporter of raw human hair, after the US, India, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Local exporters, including Shahzad, said that Pakistan's hair industry was largely informal.

Child scavengers, like Khan, pick hair from the streets and rubbish piles and sell it to dealers for about US$18 per kg. The dealers than sell the hair to companies, which wash and comb it, before selling it on to traders for about US$36 per kg. The traders either ship the hair to China or send it through Pakistani exporters like Shahzad.

Emma Tarlo, an anthropologist and the author of Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, said that much of the hair China imports from India and Pakistan is combings - hair gathered from people's combs during brushing and washing.

"Hair is collected from those Asian countries where the majority of women have long hair, like India and Pakistan, and China still is the largest importer of human hair," said Tarlo.

Want a tidy profit? Hair you go: Piles of hair in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Haroon Janjua

She continued, "Once women have collected up to a year's worth of fallen hair, they sell it to passing hair collectors. The balls of waste hair get sent to sorting workshops where they are untangled and made up into bunches before being sent to China."

In Pakistan, she added, most of the cleaning and untangling is done by hand without processing units.

Tarlo said that the type of hair most valued for trade is long and natural, meaning not chemically altered. The hair can be bleached or dyed in factories, although this process weakens the hair.

Locals estimated that more than 100 Chinese hair traders operate in Pakistan. The number has dropped in recent years, industry insiders said, because of a decline in the supply of hair from Afghanistan, which in the past had been sent to traders in Pakistan.

Negotiating with Chinese traders is a key part of the industry, said Naveed Akhtar, owner of the Waheed Universal Hair Company, a hair processing plant in the central district of Vehari in Punjab.

"It is not affordable to travel to China to trade with merchants directly there, as it needs huge investment," said Akhtar, 32, who has been in the business for eight years.

"Most dealers in Pakistan prefer to deal with Chinese traders who are present in Pakistan and travel to Myanmar and export it to Hong Kong and China."

Pakistan may need to build more processing sites if it wants to compete with other Asian countries in the hair trade, one Chinese trader said.

The finished product: wigs processed in Vehari, Pakistan. Photo: Haroon Janjua

"The quality of hair in Pakistan is quite good and healthy, meaning there is immense demand on the global market due to its length," said Chang Lee, 42, a Chinese contractor who has been based in Karachi for the past seven years.

"We have untangling processing units in Myanmar, and if this facility was available in Pakistan then this would be a booming market," Lee added.

Tarlo added that hair processing facilities were generally in impoverished areas where jobs are scarce. Like Lee, she said some of this "untangling" industry is moving to Myanmar.

"In recent years, Myanmar has developed a number of hair workshops. It imports waste hair balls from Pakistan and India, especially for untangling and sorting," she said.

Some in Pakistan are trying to capitalise on the demand for hair, especially those already in the business. Others are lamenting that they didn't get in on the trade earlier.

"Hair exporters have placed baskets inside hair salons in the big cities, but due to a lack of awareness the workers have not cooperated with them and removed the baskets," A.M. Chauhan, a well-known beautician in Islamabad, said. He said that the traders paid about US$76 per kg.

"This is still a kind of cottage industry, informal sector work," Chauhan added. "Only by knowing the price today, do I realise that we have wasted billions of dollars by throwing out hair for the last 30 years."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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