Seraj* and Sohel* are friends and fellow businessmen. Their business, however, is one wrapped in a shroud of secrecy.
They live in an unassuming two-bedroom house in Dewanbari when they are in Dhaka, travelling frequently because of their clandestine work.
While Seraj is a plump short man who likes to have his shirt tucked in, wear a sweater vest and his love for paan (betel leaf) stains his mouth in all its red glory on the weekday, Sohel likes to keep it casual. The leaner and taller friend sports a lungi and a shirt and does not shy away from speaking his mind and laying down the facts.
The duo's Dewanbari abode looks like, from the outside, any other residential building lining the narrow alleys. However, it is a different story inside. There are no pictures nor much furniture. But a messy bed with a mosquito net leaves little room for a stool or two and a table. "We are not exactly family men; bachelors really, so please pardon the mess," says Sohel as he motions towards the bedroom.
On the table are strands of hair neatly tied with rubber bands. Peculiar, sure, but only if outsiders do not know of the intricate and secretive hair trade business that these two 'hair agents' depend on for their livelihood.
According to data available on the website of the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh, Bangladesh exported over $35 million worth of human hair and wigs in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
However, these statistics do not include Seraj and Sohel's business, which is unregistered. And they are not alone. According to Sohel, there are approximately 500 men in the greater Faidabad area, who are part of the same business.
"We had been thieves and robbers in our past life, but finding this trade, we changed. This is more profitable, without the risk, without committing crimes," said Sohel.
During the insightful conversation, the two sets of beady eyes kept exchanging looks, almost as though they were making sure the other person was okay with what was being shared. Sohel spoke more freely, while Seraj seemed to be more reserved.
The hair trade business is broken down into a meticulous system and layers, they explained.
The maze and actors of the trade
At first, discarded hair from households and beauty salons are collected by a 'hawker.' In many cases, this hawker barters toys and figurines or chocolates for discarded hair. "We have individuals as such in nearly all districts and upazila," said Seraj, "we have been doing this for approximately 30 years. The system expanded over time."
The hawker gets the money for the toys, etc from the hair agents. And, by giving products worth Tk1,000, an agent can collect one kg of hair worth Tk5,000.
Seraj claims to be a pioneering hair agent. "I was the first entrepreneur to introduce this idea in 1993," he said, reeking of confidence and pride.
Once the hawker collects the 'raw' hair, each hawker has a designated spot where he goes to dispatch it to agents like Seraj and Sohel. "In our case, we collect it from Lalon. He works in the Mirpur area and then comes to this side of town," said Seraj.
Then the collected hair - "which is what we call raw, tangled hair," added Sohel - is sent to villages and towns. "This is where women are employed to detangle the hair," explained Sohel. "We employ many women in our village towns such as Sherpur."
The hair is untangled using shampoo, detergent powder, kerosene oil and water. The workers clean the hair and lay it out straight. The strands are sorted by length, using a large comb-like tool with rows of eight-inch-long spikes. Once sorted, they are tied with a rubber band.
According to the hair agents, a female worker can untangle 100 grams of hair a day and get only Tk100. The highest wages among the country's hair factories for hair processing is in Sherpur, where processing one kilogramme costs Tk800.
The operation has multiple stages and is widespread. "Between the two of us," said Sohel, gesturing with his hands, "we have around 2,200 people employed. Heck, Seraj has a minimum of 1,000 workers under him."
Since 2000, hair processing facilities have developed in some villages of Chuadanga, Kushtia, Naogoan, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Sherpur, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Tangail and Gazipur districts. While Seraj has employees in Shepur, Sohel has a base in Chuadanga.
And how much do you make from this business? "You see, it's best not to share numbers and figures. We like to maintain discretion," said a chuckling Sohel. Even after repeated attempts, the duo refused to budge. They stuck to their guns, of discretion.
There are two large markets, one in Chuadanga and the other in Naogaon, from where Faidabad hair agents source the non-Remy (lower quality and cheaper price tag) ponytails that they sell. And there is REMY hair, the more sought after one.
From the village towns, the untangled hair makes its way back to Dhaka city, mainly Faidabad, Uttara. It then gets processed and made ready for sale - either as bulk or after going through another step. It is used to make hair 'caps' - a variation of hair wigs.
"We call them caps, the West calls them wigs," said Seraj. The caps are then sold to interested buyers, while the bulk of the hair is generally sold to other hair agents looking to make caps themselves.
"Do you want to see how it gets processed?" asked Sohel. "We can show you one part of the process. Only if there is no photograph involved."
Inside the 'hair' workshops
Only a few buildings away stands a small-scale workshop. This time Seraj led the way to the one storey two-room house. There was a CCTV camera atop the entrance gate. And right from the start, traces of the hair business were obvious.
At the door, there was a glass box with yellow bulbs inside. And, of course, strands and strands of hair lay in neatly sorted chunks. "These are being dried, part of the 'processing' is washing the hair," explained Seraj.
Inside the barely 400 square feet room, some 10 men, perhaps aged in their twenties, sat arranged in a rectangular shape. They were packaging the hair, while at the other end of the room, there was a board with about six men standing around it. They all had a steamer in hand and were pressing on their hair.
"This is where the hair is 'packaged' on calendar boards. After the hair is steamed, it is laid on cardboard," said Sohel, who appeared from behind. The same hair is then used to make caps.
In the next room, there were five feet high - and possibly seven feet wide - bulk of hair. Those were neatly sorted and tied with rubber bands at one end. "This is a very small unit," explained Sohel. "The real factories and workshops are in Faidabad," he said.
The duo led to another contact, a fellow hair agent by the name of Akter. The Dewanbari workshop is about a 15-minute rickshaw ride away from Faidabad bazaar.
Akter was even less forward than Seraj, whose abode resembled the same arrangement as Seraj and Sohel's, except his 'workshop', adjacent to his bedroom, was bigger. Interestingly, his bedroom looked like a control room, with a monitor up showing several CCTV feeds.
Akter's workshop includes a room with hair assorted and stacked up against the wall with markings that say how long each hair strand is. One from the shortest length in the room - 6 inches – weighed 0.8 grams.
So what is your production like? "It depends on the demand. But generally, we produce 30 kilos of hair," he said. Pointing at the room, he added, "Like this in one week's time," said Akter.
The whole market is a tightly-knit community, where everyone knows everyone and what they produce. There are makers of caps of different lengths and styles, and in some workshops, even different colours.
Foreigners in Faidabad
Although Seraj and Sohel confirmed that 90% of their buyers are foreigners and that they come to the market to make the purchase in the morning starting from 7 am - on that Wednesday, a foreign buyer could still be spotted around noon. He was being escorted by hair agents to, possibly, the caps (i.e. wigs).
After a few minutes' trail, the buyer and his escort disappeared through a narrow corridor, perhaps to make a purchase. And this is how the hair cap is sold off to a foreign buyer and then, ultimately, exported out of the country.
And just like the duo mentioned earlier, 90% of Akter's buyers, he claims, are also foreigners.
The primary reason that enables foreigners to buy hair in the country and then export it is the 'unregistered' hair factories and workshops that are run by hair agents like Seraj, Sohel or Akter. "If we are to become registered, we will have to increase the price of our product [because of tax the hair agents would have to pay to the government] and lose our customers in the process," explained Sohel.
Their business is based on discretion and secrecy. "We are always sceptical to speak to media persons or law enforcement personnel," added Sohel, "but this is a business we have built out of the hair that you throw out."
While the duo and Akter all claim to be part of committees – an example is Bedategharia Chul Bebosayee Samabay Samity (human hair traders' cooperative society) of Sherpur district – they remain unregistered. And they would like to keep it that way.
Names have been changed to protect identity. Sadiqur Rahman also contributed to this report.