Kenya dump dwellers make a living recycling hair extensions

In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, hairdresser Mary Wanjiku, 29, weaves the hair of local resident Ruth Njera, 25, at a makeshift hair salon in the Korogocho slum of Nairobi, Kenya. In one of Africa's largest dumps, some residents are making a living by collecting and recycling hair from the mountains of rubbish. (AP Photo/Adelle Kalakouti)

Kenyan dump dwellers make a living recycling hair extensions, from trash to beauty salons

NAIROBI, Kenya — In one of Africa's largest dumps, some residents are making a living by collecting and recycling hair from mountains of rubbish.

Nairobi's Dandora Municipal Dumpsite stretches as far as the eye can see. It was declared full in 2001 but has remained active, with 850 to 1,500 tons of waste arriving every day. Kenya last month implemented a ban on plastic bags, a major contributor to the towering piles of trash.

Many environmentalists have campaigned for years to have the dump shut down, calling it an eyesore and a hazard. But for thousands of Kenyans, the dump is their means of existence.

Winnie Wanjira, 31, has spent her whole life at the dump, one of an estimated 6,000 people making their living by scavenging in the rubbish. Some people raise pigs on the organic waste, while others find items to sell.

Wanjira has tapped into the multi-billion-dollar global hair care industry, buying hair extensions collected by young boys in the dump and then selling it to beauty salons for a small profit.

You can get lucky and find unused human hair," she says. "Maybe someone bought it and wasn't satisfied with it, maybe the color, then they threw it away." Of the different types of hair extensions, human hair is the most coveted for its softness and versatility. The rising demand in Africa and elsewhere has countries such as India, China and Brazil competing for the biggest share of the market.

Much of the recycled hair is sold to hairdressers in Korogocho, a slum across the river from the dump. Dozens of women have set up makeshift hair salons in the local market.

In a back alley in Korogocho, 29-year-old Mary Wanjiku washes the hair she recently bought. She uses detergent to wash and rinse it, sometimes applying oil and perfume.

"After we get the hair from the dumpsite we usually sort them out and pick the good ones," Wanjiku says. She has been a hairdresser in Korogocho for nearly 10 years. Business can be slow — she averages seven customers a week — as she competes with more than 30 other stalls lined with hundreds of hairpieces.

But she is happy to be working there and says using hair from the dump makes a lot of business sense.

"We prefer to use those because they are cheap and easy to get because of close proximity, instead of those from the central business district that are expensive and also far away," she says.

Wanjiku says she doesn't go out of her way to tell customers where the hair comes from. But she says many know and are happy that the hair has been sufficiently cleaned and is more affordable than hair in town, where a good weave can go for up to 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($485). A weave in Korogocho can go for around 600 shillings ($6).

One regular customer, 25-year-old housewife Ruth Njeri, says she has been coming to the salon since 2013.

She knows that the hair comes from the dump but says the benefits outweigh the negatives.

"They have good products that have a variety of colors and texture," she says. "You get to choose what you want, some you can wash. Yeah, they are just good."

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