One man’s Dump is Another Man’s Treasure

The idea of scavenging at a dump site could bring ripples down the skin of most us but 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 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 but this has not stopped edging “entrepreneurs” from scavenging the site in order to make a “daily living.”

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.

31-year-old Winnie Wanjira 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, a hairdresser, has tapped into the multi-billion-dollar global hair care industry, by 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 colour, then they threw it away.” Of the different types of hair extensions, the 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.

The hair gotten from the dump site is washed with detergent and rinsed after which perfumes and oil are applied to it in order to boost its looks and lustre. The ladies who indulge in most of the buying and selling say that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain because the business has its lucrative days.

Kenya is one of the top leading economies in East Africa and although its economy has been struggling in recent times due to the drought that affected 30 percent of its agricultural output, and the recent political tensions, the exploitative utilisation of the Dandora dumpsite is one the government really needs to look into.