Haircuts in New Zealand salons are changing lives in Africa thanks to a social enterprise born from a conversation between a Christchurch couple and friends in Uganda.
Donated lengths of hair are being transformed into wigs in Uganda, providing precious income for the women who make them.
Covid-19 has slowed production but the first wigs have been made and sold.
Brooke Agnew has been to Uganda several times on mission trips and made friends there. An organisation she supports, Uganda-based Aroha Community Ministries, works with vulnerable children, their families, churches and schools.
In mid-2018, Brooke visited Uganda with her husband, Jake. A humorous conversation with friends, Ivan and Brenda, took place about how Brooke had shortened her long hair to shoulder length because she knew that water and electricity would be in short supply in Uganda.
The cut length of her hair measured 45 cm and Brooke had kept it.
Their conversation turned to the demand for long lengths of human hair much sought after in Uganda for making into highly-prized wigs and weaves (a type of hair extension).
“You must send it to me,” Brooke was told jokingly.
Hair Collect was born from that conversation, with dreams of making a difference.
Jakes says and there was a moment where they all thought
“You know, that could actually work,”.
A social enterprise is born
He says it is common for women in Africa to buy wigs because of the style and convenience this brings and the different ways a lot of them need to look after their hair.
“As we began to look at what the difference it could look like, we thought about sustainability, quality and commitment to collaborating with the hair industry,” Jake says.
“The idea of creating a social enterprise was born. We saw that there was an opportunity for industry partnership between hair stylists and salons in New Zealand and a place where the people getting their haircut could give their hair to be made into wigs and weaves. Part of the profits would go into transforming communities in Africa.”
Back in Uganda, Ivan and Brenda put their vast experience in sales, distribution and strategic systems roll-outs to work.
They shared their ideas about wanting to make an impact in their communities and it became clear to them that this really could happen.
“We had been used to charities as a way to make the world better, but ethical business began to make sense.
If you want to make a change to people in poverty, give them skills that are in demand and jobs that help them provide for their communities,” Jake says.
He says the project is built on a ‘Robin Hood’ model where the wigs are bought by the rich and the profits go to the poor.
The donated hair’s quality is assessed in New Zealand by hairdressers, salon stylists and Hair Collect volunteers.
Hair needs only to be at least 25 cm long, but not bleached, knotted or damaged.
The cut and packaged hair is sent to Uganda where it is dyed black. About 250 gm of hair is needed to make a short wig. Longer wigs are can use up to 400 gm.
So far, more than 200 hair donations, weighing 15-20 kg in total, have been sent to Uganda. It takes three to five lots of hair to make one wig.
Several wig makers have been employed and have been able to start training others in the art.
“We are two cultures coming together to make something that neither of us could do on our own. It’s also about inviting others into our story and giving them the opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life,” Jake says.
“We run a socially-conscious start-up whose heart is to have a wider impact than just making money. People, the planet and profit should not come at the expense of each other. Their destinies are all tied up together.”
The project is based in Jinja on the shores of Lake Victoria near the source of the White Nile. The wigs and weaves are sold in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
Jake says the project is close to breaking even. He and Brooke have been covering the New Zealand side of the costs. Jake has also reduced his paid work for an advertising agency to four days a week to spend one day each week working voluntarily for Hair Collect.
The project’s biggest challenge has been the distance between New Zealand and Uganda and that they haven’t been able to visit for two years and do practical things like open a bank account there.
Long term, expansion is their hope because of the jobs it will create. There is also the potential to use profits to help business start-ups.
Jakes says, “Helping women into business provides the opportunity to educate their children and change communities. We’re doing this one haircut at a time.”
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