Miriam Ginika, a businesswoman in Lagos, Nigeria, doesn't braid or weave her hair. To allow her to change hairstyles as often as she likes, Ginika, 45, has worn wigs for the past two decades.
"I don't wear wigs because of any hair problem, I do it for fashion and convenience," she said.
Ginika said wigs are convenient and "cool", and that her favorites are curly black or dark brown.
The Nigerian is one of an increasing number of consumers worldwide wearing hair products made by Chinese producers, many of which can be traced to Xuchang, a city in Central China's Henan province.
Nonetheless, when Zheng Gaowei, who has been collecting human hair for a living for the past decade, returns home to Xuchang's Xiaogong village with several bags of hair, he is worried by the growing number of people with short or dyed hair that he sees from the beauty salons.
"Very few people leave their hair long now," he said.
Zheng, 40, said that hair products made with "healthy and non-oily natural hair" are the most sought-after, but coming across those "is really rare these days".
Xiaogong village, which has many small workshops where hair is processed for weaves and wigs, forms an important part of the economy of Xuchang, a city known as a hair-making hub where locals have collected hair for the industry since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Hair products companies in Xuchang account for up to half of China's hair products exports. The total output value of the city's hair products hit 23.6 billion yuan ($3.34 billion) in 2018 alone, according to the local commerce bureau.
However, while more than 350 households in Xiaogong were involved in the hair industry at its peak, fewer than 100 are involved now, Zheng said.
"Very few young people are in this industry now and they don't want to stay in the village," Zheng said. "We're left with old people, about 50 to 70 years old, in this industry."
Zheng said he also travels around the country for work, going as far as Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in the south.
"Running around looking for hair is tough work, and whether you can get good raw hair really depends on luck," said Zheng, who added that he can make about 10,000 yuan ($1,400) a month.
Hair products manufacture has also been a business for centuries in Xuchang's Quandian village after German merchants discovered how hair of residents there was "straight with a healthy sheen", said Zhang Tianyou, vice-president of major hair products manufacturer Henan Rebecca Hair Products, Inc. Foreigners began to trade embroidery needles and forks for the hair material, and street peddlers calling out for residents' hair soon became a common sight in the village, Zhang said.
Henan Rebecca Hair Products, Inc., after experiencing nearly three decades in the business, now supplies hair products to more than 40 countries and regions in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, Zhang said.
The company had set up about 20 directly operated in-stores in the United States for high-end consumers before the US began imposing additional tariffs on imports from China, therefore it is not expected to be a significant hit by the trade friction, Zhang said.
"Even if we are faced with increasing challenges, we believe in the opportunities offered by the market," he said.
The company initially focused on the domestic market, but as business became brisk, it began looking overseas and opened a wholly-owned factory in Nigeria in 2003, becoming the first Chinese hair products manufacturer on the continent, Zhang said.
To satisfy the growing demand and localize its manufacturing processes, Henan Rebecca Hair Products, Inc. also set up its own company in Nigeria and Ghana, said Zheng Wenqing, the company's general manager.
"The localization of our manufacturing processes is a priority. It can help better satisfy local demand as well as reduce costs," she said, adding that the company's products reach to western, southern and eastern Africa.
Nigeria is the biggest market
Godwin Ezeigbo, the marketing manager of Rebecca Fashion Ltd in Lagos, said the company's products receive great reputation from the African market due to their quality and affordability.
Although it has clients in African countries such as Benin, South Africa, Ghana and Kenya, the company's biggest market is Nigeria, he said.
"Both synthetic and human hair products are doing great in the Nigerian market," he said. "The sales of human hair products are, however, higher than synthetic products, because they offer the most natural look and feel. They are also more durable than synthetic products."
Longer hairstyles are generally more popular, but in warmer weather the shorter ones sell better, he said. Ezeigbo said demand was low during the recent prolonged rain in Lagos, but he expected sales to pick up in September. December is another peak time due to the holiday season, he added.
Meanwhile, hair products from Xuchang are also top-selling items on e-commerce giant Alibaba's shopping portal, maintaining a growth rate of more than 400 percent in the hair products trade alone for two consecutive years and ranking third among the most traded commodities, said Li Xiaomin, chief of the foreign trade administration section of Xuchang's commerce bureau.
Online customers also prefer more customized hair products compared with customers of traditional sales channels, said Zhang Huiting, general manager of the hair products company's e-commerce department.
In countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania, the company's major brands, Noble, Magic and Fashion Idol, which feature popular synthetic hair products, are "perfectly targeted to be stylish and trendy with modest prices", Zhang said.
The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative is also set to help fuel growth in hair products industry, boosting market and demand, she said.
The rise of e-commerce has dramatically changed the industrial chain, said Wu Li, president of Xuchang Fuxin Hair Products Co, who arrived in Xuchang from Hong Kong in 2003. Wu said her company has been involved in cross-border e-commerce for nearly five years.
E-commerce has prompted companies to consider the needs of consumers more effectively and connected producers more closely with customers, Wu said.
Sun Weifeng, 27, who is in charge of AliExpress global retail section of Wu's company, said getting positive feedback from customers in English has been very encouraging.
In Serbia, the owner of the popular Koko Hair Studio, who prefers to be known simply as Ivana, praised the quality of Rebecca Fashion's Sleek Brand of hair products and said an increasing number of people are buying from this brand.
"I found Sleek through the internet and decided to try their products first. I was amazed by the product quality and can’t stop buying," she said.
Sleek offers high-quality lace and middle-part products, more importantly, Sleek provides natural-looking styles and soft touch, she said.
"Our consumers include both men and women. Some of them want longer and more stylish hair just for the look, while others unfortunately may have hair problems. For any reason, we love hair products," she said.
She said her customers range in age from 14 to 70, and that she sells from 150 to 200 PCS each month.
In Xiaogong, villager Zheng Gaowei has come to realize that the era of collecting real human hair for the hair products industry is on the wane. Facing that reality, Henan Rebecca Hair Products Inc. has been moving its upstream supply chain to other areas such as India, as well as focusing on synthetic fiber manufacturing, the other type of major material for hair products.
The company is gearing up to improve the technology behind synthetic fiber, said Zhang Shaoying, manager of the company's synthetic hair production base.
Before 2008, the group mainly imported synthetic fibers from Japan and South Korea, Zhang said. But it now makes its own synthetic fibers, with nearly 200 stores helping to promote its latest products in first－and second-tier cities across China, Zhang said.
Despite progress, there are many challenges to the industry's continuous growth.
One of the biggest challenges in the Chinese market is convincing consumers that wearing wigs is the fashion. "Not just something for people suffering baldness or actors wearing for movie roles", said Wang Shixin, director of the technology center at Henan Rebecca Hair Products Inc.
"In terms of the Chinese market, it is a sunrise industry," Wang said. "The demand for this fashion will increase as people's living standards improve."
Alexis Hooi contributed to this story.