Are Asians running the UK’s Afro-hair industry?

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Norin Babs (standing) and her client Jumo (sitting)

Smooth melodic drums, residue hair extensions on the floor, long hours of standing, and ‘Naija’ gossip, are just a shallow description of the afro-hair salon ‘Super 5 Food & Beauty Mart’ in Edinburgh. As Scotland gradually catches up with England in exploring the market of black hair salons, at least a dozen have emerged in the Scottish capital.

Norin Babs from Adamao, the ‘sunshine state’ of Nigeria has lived in Edinburgh for the past 22 years of her life and according to her, she opened Edinburgh’s first black hair salon selling afro hair products eight years ago. Located on Great Junction Street, Norin solely runs the salon by herself. 

She said ‘’ I opened it because I realised there was no place where Africans can go and get good hair products in Edinburgh, so I thought why not open a place like this where we can connect and have access to essentials that weren’t available.

‘’I was just trying to bring Africa to Edinburgh.’’

Super 5 provides hair styling and hair product services

She hasn’t employed staff because she wants to transition from the agonising wrist-twisting chores of braiding and hair styling of the thick textured afro hair of her clients. She has a different vision, which is not just less time-consuming and body aching but also the most lucrative part of the business, the hair products!

This is an 88 million pound market in the UK that hasn’t been fully explored in Scotland, at least for the most part. Her salon does both- she has shelves stacked with hair creams, shampoos, moisturizers, combs, wigs, and extensions- so many things many wouldn’t know are used by the afro hair community. However, she has a problem, a very big problem. Her competitors are Asian businessmen. Business-minded by nature, community-oriented, disciplined and organised as a community.

Norin says ‘’Over the years we came to discover that a lot of Asian shops were opening and selling our hair products which was quite interesting at first. ‘’We thought they were just trying to help, it was later on we discovered that these guys are taking over our market.

‘’We went into their shops and realised that there was a huge price difference with ours. ‘’What we bought on wholesale, they were selling it cheaper on retail, and these things are not supposed to be cheap ‘’

Norin finds it impossible to compete at this rate and it has hit her business hard. Maybe this is the case why most afro hair salons have held on to the hairdressing part since it’s deeply embedded in African culture. Probably that is the only aspect of the business the Asians can’t take away from them. 

Norin Babs opened Super 5 in 2015

In a complementary way, Norin says ‘’Wealthy and trustworthy Asian businessmen come together as a conglomerate with a bigger purchasing power that we the Afro-Caribbean community can’t match.’’

‘’They are thriving communities who put resources together and have a better bargain from the source itself.

‘’We buy from the supplier, they buy from the source- you see the difference.’’

One of the Asian shops selling black hair products is on Nicholson Street, ironically opposite an Indian restaurant run by a Gambian chef. Quite a cultural exchange. Written ‘Jamni Hair and Beauty’, the shop was packed to the brim with hair extensions of all sorts costing between £20 to £180. A wider variety of creams, brushes, twisters, moisturizers, shampoos and even African incents were all on display. The shop was busy and it seemed like business was booming. The products had different packaging and anything you asked for, the shopkeeper brought you at least three different kinds he had. 

Refusing to say his name on record, the man behind the counter said he was the owner of the business and said he had opened his shop 10 years ago. That is at least two years earlier than Norin’s Hair Salon and Shop.

 When he was posed with the question about how Asians have dominated the afro-hair industry he said ‘’ You just need to be flexible with your supplier and pay them on time, I found out that Africans are not good with that.

‘’When they have the money, they eat it and when it is time to pay the supplier, it’s a problem.’’

‘’It’s not everybody though, but I have seen this with most of them.’’

Jamni Hair and Beauty on Nicholson Street is the biggest afro-hair product retailer in Edinburgh

Both the Asian businessman and Norin have confirmed that they get their products from London.  Peckham is amongst London’s most diverse communities, predominately inhabited by Africans. One of Norin’s customers, Jumo, who was getting her braided said ‘’ There is a huge shop in Peckham which is about three storeys high, it was like walking in a Primark of black hair products only and this is an Asian-run business.

‘’I have also seen Asians coming into black salons and picking up the empty packages of hair extensions, it is rumoured that they reuse them with a cheaper or fake version of the original one.’’

These rumours haven’t been confirmed to be true. 

Multiple wigs on display at the Asian shop

Norin believes that African communities must learn to integrate better and build better business relationships with one another. ‘’ We are not recognised within our communities, we need to know who we are and integrate. 

‘’This is why I have launched ‘Culture Connect’- to create events where African communities can network and build something.’’

The Scottish Asian Business Chamber is one of the most prominent initiatives where Asian businesses are awarded and recognised for their achievements in business. 

There are a handful of African networking initiatives like Black Professional Scotland, which focuses on Job opportunities, academics and networking events.

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