Roadside tea stalls, tailoring shops, salons and kitchen markets, the Faidabad locality in Uttara looks like any other residential area in Dhaka city. Behind the guise of a seemingly quiet neighbourhood, the area, dotted with warehouses and wig factories, is abuzz with hundreds of suppliers and buyers of processed hair every day.
There are at least 40 enterprises in the area that sell processed hair worth over Tk4 crore a month.
Fifteen minutes east of Azampur bus stop in Uttara, Faidabad is known to traders as the country's commercial capital for human hair trading.
There is no signboard to help identify the individual enterprises. For interested parties, there are some contact numbers which are available through hair agents. If asked by strangers, hair traders do not help them navigate the market.
But the local tea stall owners know where everything is because the traders are their regular customers.
From dawn to noon on weekdays, traders are busy in dealing with suppliers and buyers of processed hair, which actually come in the form of ponytails.
More than 90 per cent of the buyers are Chinese businessmen visiting Bangladesh.
Ali Ahmed, a trader representing the 84-member Bedategharia Chul Bebosayee Samabay Samity (human hair traders' cooperative society) of Sherpur district, operates a warehouse for ponytails at Faidabad Bazar.
The façade of Ali's tin-shed single-storied warehouse is deceptive because it does not look like a commercial centre.
Before dawn, hair agents from Sherpur bring ponytails packed in cartons to Ali's tin-shed warehouse. The products, some reaching 26 inches in length, are tipped onto the floor of the warehouse for the people representing Chinese and local wig factories.
Ali and his business partners communicate with the buyers and inform them about the new arrivals.
The buyers arrive, judge the quality of the hair, and offer a price. While the suppliers, tired after a sleepless night journey, take a nap on the concrete floor.
The Chinese buyers generally can't speak Bangla or English, while the sellers do not know Mandarin. Local interpreters who can speak broken Mandarin help the traders make successful deals.
On a humid morning in early May, a broker named Sadhu Bhai along with a Chinese buyer 'Mr Lee' came to Ali's warehouse. Sadhu, who is from Chuadanga district, was the interpreter.
"The Chinese businessmen pay me monthly. I also get a commission on sales," Sadhu said.
On that very day, Lee purchased 10 kilograms of ponytails worth Tk95,000, equivalent to $1,114.
Sadhu did not reveal how much he got from the sale, and Lee did not talk to this correspondent.
When asked, Sadhu said that Lee is in Bangladesh as a tourist, and has rented an apartment in Uttara to stay for three months. Besides merchandising for other things, he buys ponytails for wig factories in China, and sends them there through global courier service.
Both foreign and local buyers purchase ponytails of different lengths, ranging between 6 inchs and 26 inchs. The shorter hairs are used for male wigs while the long ones for manufacturing hair extensions and wigs for women.
A ponytail may not contain same-sized strands. Hence, the product is called non-Remy hair, meaning that the strands are collected from different donors.
"Buyers mainly collect non-Remy hair from Bangladesh," Ali said.
Hair agents collect dead hair pulled out of hairbrushes or cut off at womens parlours across the country, and sell them to hair merchants who have hair cleaning facilities. Using bicycles to travel from village to village, the agents collect the hair and pay for it with cheap children's toys, cosmetics, sweets and money which they get from the merchant as a loan.
By giving products worth Tk1,000, an agent can collect one kg of dead hair worth Tk5,000.
The hair is untangled by women working for the merchant. Using shampoo, detergent powder, kerosene oil and water, the workers clean the hair and lay them out straight. The strands are sorted by length, using a large comb-like tool with rows of eight-inch-long spikes. Once they are sorted, the strands are bound together with rubber-band.
"A female worker can untangle 100 grams of hair a day and get only Tk50," said Ali. He pointed out that the wage for hair processing workers in Sherpur is the highest among the hair factories in Bangladesh.
Processing one kilogram of hair costs around Tk800.
"Since 2000, hair processing facilities have developed in some villages of Chuadanga, Kushtia, Naogaon, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Sherpur, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Tangail and Gazipur districts, creating job opportunities for one lakh and more people," said Saiful Islam who pioneered the hair trade at Faidabad in 1993.
Now, the human hair collection network has expanded across the country, catering to two large markets, one in Chuadanga and the other in Naogaon, from where Faidabad merchants source the non-Remy ponytails that they sell.
Syed Nasir Uddin, the owner of Faidabad-based Afro Bangla Human Hair Trade, is among a few merchants who exports ponytails. While Mahmudul Hassan Rana, owner of Hair Piece Factory at Moinartek in Uttara, exports customised wigs to 26 countries.
Each of the 40 female workers who work at least 208 hours a month at Mahmudul's factory, knot seven wigs at most. They get Tk500 for knotting a 5 to 7-inch wig.
"Knotting a wig requires sharp eyes for detail. Young women can do the job better," said Atiar Rahman, proprietor of Hair Like International – a Faidabad-based wig factory that has a monthly production capacity of 1,300 wigs. Ninety-eight percent of the wigs produced there are exported to the United Arab Emirates, India and Pakistan. The rest are sold at the local hair replacement salons he is partnering with.
None of the wig manufacturers reveal their earning from the export of hair products, or provide details about their local partners.
However, Alibaba.com, the online-based global marketplace, shows that the price of wigs manufactured by Hair Piece Factory range between $120 and $350, equivalent to about Tk10,080 and Tk29,400 [$1=Tk84].
False label at local outlets
For the last two years, Mohammad Israfil has been running Hair Style International – a hair replacement salon at Farmgate. Before launching his new venture, Israfil was an assistant at a salon owned by his uncle.
His uncle is now running a wig factory in Uttara.
"Every month, around 1,000 wigs are produced at the factory. My uncle exports more than 90 per cent of the wigs to China and India. The rest are sold in the domestic market," Israfil said, adding that the price of wigs at his salon range from Tk5,000 to Tk28,000, depending on quality.
Israfil said that expensive wigs are imported from South Korea and the United States.
Despite the hair processed in Bangladesh being 'Made in Bangladesh' and coming from native women, the final products are labelled as Korean or American to get a higher price from foreign customers, many of whom believe Bangladeshi hair is of poor quality.
"The raw material (a base cap on which the hairs are woven) is imported from South Korea or US," said Mannan Shaik, who runs two branches of hair replacement salon Hair & Fair in Dhaka and Chattogram.
Mannan has a wig factory in Faridpur district. Fifty-six workers, mostly women, work at Mannan's factory which has a monthly production capacity of 500 wigs. He also exports his products to the UAE and to Malaysia.
Is it a secret business?
According to data available in the website of the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh, Bangladesh exported $23.02 million worth of human hair and wigs in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Ten years back, human hair and wigs worth $0.81 million were exported. The official data proves that the million-dollar business is expanding substantially.
The Export Promotion Bureau, however, stores limited data on hair export, which is only provided by large-scale hair product manufacturers in the country.
The latest directory of the Export Promotion Bureau lists only MGL Company BD Limited – a Chinese venture in Ishwardi Export Processing Zone – as a hair product exporter.
But a google search finds that there are a number of human hair and wig exporting enterprises like Hair Piece Factory, Hair King Bangladesh, Hair Coat, Excel Trade and Services and Cute Hair in Bangladesh.
Do they skimp on export procedures to deprive the country of revenue?
Md Abdur Rouf, director of the Export Promotion Bureau, thinks that there is no way to avoid export duties.
"Many of the hair product exporters do not have a bond license. They export their products through third parties having a bond license. Hence, customs duties are collected from the exported products," Rouf said.
However, human hair and wig exporters including Atiar said that they send the products through global courier services like Fedex and DHL, paying only the courier fees.
"Almost all the hair traders are illiterate and come from poor families. We have little knowledge of export procedures. Additionally, having a bond license is impossible without bribing the officials. Also, we have to bribe the local police when carrying the consignments. That's why we run our business silently," Atiar admitted.
He added that people related to hair trading are trying to organize themselves under a common banner to regulate their businesses.