By Song Qingqing
December 1, 2019
Across China’s third and fourth-tier cities, visitors may notice scooter-riding men and women carrying loudspeakers advertising that they are “collecting hair, long hair wanted, high prices for long hair.” Interested passersby may stop the individual, negotiate, and allow the hair collector to cut their hair. These small-town women who sell their hair may have no idea how far it will travel. In fact, it is likely to end up in a hair salon in an African country.
The collection process is just the beginning of the China-Africa wig export business. China is the world’s larger producer and exporter of wigs, accounting for 80% of global market share. The United States has long ranked first among Chinese wig export destinations, accounting for 42.26 percent of exports in 2018. However, China’s wig export volume to African countries like Benin, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana has steadily increased in recent years . There are many potential explanations for the shift. For one, China does not enjoy a competitive advantage in high-end markets compared with wig companies from the U.S., Japan, and Korea. China’s hair product industry has been dominated by Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) production and counterfeiting, with many wig products being produced in family workshops, rendering them uncompetitive compared with those produced by large companies. Increased demand for wigs in Africa, the rising popularity of cross-border e-commerce, and the policy bonus under the Belt and Road Initiative further explain China’s wig export boom. The Belt and Road Initiative has paved the way for infrastructure development and bilateral e-commerce Memoranda of Understanding between China and various countries. Cooperation is further buoyed by tariff increases imposed by the U.S. government, forcing companies to reconsider their export destinations.
In September 2018, former AC Milan football star and current President of Liberia, George Weah, visited Beijing to attend the China-Africa Cooperation Forum. After the forum, he made a special visit to Xuchang, a city in Henan province, to visit local wig companies. How did such a little-known city attract the attention of a president? Xuchang is the largest hair product production and export base in the world. Awarded the title of “China Hair Products Export Production Base” by the Ministry of Commerce, Xuchang’s hair product exports account for more than 40% of China’s total hair product exports. The largest company, Rebecca, now sells its hair products in over 20 African countries, and its 2017 revenue from Africa reached 884 million RMB (138.1 million U.S. dollars), up 23% from the previous year and accounting for nearly half of its overall revenue. Apart from Henan province, Shandong, Anhui, Hunan, and Guangdong are also key export provinces for hair products. Xuchang’s success offers a glimpse into the scale of wig export production in China.
While salons in first-tier cities like Nanjing also collect human hair, most wigs originate in rural areas where women are less likely to have their hair permed or colored. Length and quality determine price: 12 cm of hair is worth about 400 RMB (about $57). Before export, hair is processed in factories. It is first disinfected in large barrels before workers use paddles to stir clumps of strands into vats of steaming water. It is then dyed before being dried in ovens, brushed and sewn into hair extensions.
“African women cannot live without fake hair,” according to Vivian, a salon owner I met in Nairobi, Kenya. She took off her wig, revealing her natural hair, which she explained is tightly curled, kinked and grows almost parallel to the scalp, limiting the possibility for diverse hairstyles without the help of weaves and wigs. Currently, Vivian runs a small salon in Nairobi where she weaves, braids and sells wigs. The rapid development of the internet across Africa has led to increased opportunities for grassroots entrepreneurship, with no exception for those who sell hair products. Vivian uses Facebook to promote her services. She explained that she purchases most of her raw material for wigs and weaves from African middlemen who travel to places like Guangzhou, China to procure hair products. In recent years, the development of Chinese cross-border e-commerce companies like Aliexpress (an international version of Taobao), DHgate and Joybuy (an international version of JD.com) have made hair products ever more accessible.
Hair products are a small example of the connection between China and Africa, but China’s huge presence is causing concerns and complaints across the continent. One shoe seller in Nairobi said that the influx of Chinese shops and commodities has almost put him out of business. He sells brand name shoes, but Chinese traders often sell counterfeit goods at low prices that he cannot compete against. Standard Newspaper in Kenya reported on China’s engagement in unfair market competition by flooding the market with cheap products and edging out local businesses.
In Kenya, Chinese merchants have been accused of selling inferior or fake mobile phones and other commodities. A few years ago, hawkers in Nairobi took to the streets to protest the presence of Chinese retailers in the city. This type of competition is not what African leaders desire from international cooperation with China. Instead, they seek investment in infrastructure and factories, Chinese import of local products and technology transfers. The construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, which cost 3.4 billion dollars and for which China supplied 80% of the funds, is an example of the direction leaders would like to see for future Sino-African relations.
Chinese traders, however, expect a market for their goods. By shifting the focus of wig exports from America to Africa, Chinese producers can sell low-end products more widely. But in the end, promoting an industry upgrade is essential for Chinese manufacturers. Shoddy and/or counterfeit goods are not beneficial for the long term development of China’s wig market. Moreover, the vulnerability of local businesses may lead stakeholders to consider the effect on African locals of China’s expanding economic influence on the continent.