By Peter Oliver Ochieng

Kisumu, Siaya, Homabay, Migori and Busia are the five Kenyan Counties bordering Lake Victoria; the largest in Africa and the second largest fresh water body in the World.

Every day, Lake Victoria is polluted through human activities such as dumping of waste, thus, affecting aquatic life. Plastic or natural human hair waste openly dumped by salon owners eventually end up in the Lake and other water bodies whenever it rains.

However, there is a positive turnaround. Human hair waste is now a major raw material in making of door mats, table mats and carpets, preventing droves of it from ending up in the Lake. This innovative venture is taking place at Alisam Product Development and Design, in Wath Orego, Kisumu East Constituency, about 355km from the Capital, Nairobi.

Newton Owino, the proprietor of Alisam Product Development and Design says the initiative started in 2014.

“We have the synthetic human hair where the braids and weaves are categorized. In most cases they consist of bio-degradable material that includes silicon, the PVC and acrylics. All these are toxic materials and they are all found in synthetic human hair, even the natural human hair. These materials when they accumulate, they cause what we call a global environmental problem. They cause toxication of life in the ocean,”   Owino says.

He is closely working with five salon owners in various parts of Kisumu. They collect used human hair braids, weaves and wigs. The waste is then taken to Alisam Product Development and Design, mostly once peer week before Newton and his team of four other people settle down to turn hair into carpets and mats.

Owino says that on most occasions, the hair waste fills up 90kg sacks. “The business of hair braids is quiet big because for instance, one of the market centers where we normally collect the waste – that is Mamboleo, we have close to 20 salons. Averagely, one salon can collect between 10 to 20kgs,” says Newton.

He says since 2014, the initiative continues to reduce the quantity of human hair waste dumped, anyhow. He however concedes that the impact is still not that big due to the high number of salons in Kisumu.

Newton Owino in his office during the interview

He adds, “That is why we train youth and women willing to take this up so that together, we can be able to recycle human hair waste and prevent it from getting into the lake.” So far, tens of people have been trained and some of them are actively involved in the initiative.

Carpets and mats made here are sold locally and abroad at a cost of between Sh250 and Sh4, 500, (about 2.0USD to 37.4USD) depending with the design and size.  It takes two to five hours to come up with a medium size mat, which means a person can make between three and five in a day. Currently, the production capacity is 200-500 mats in a month. “We intend to buy more equipment in order to upscale our production capacity going forward,” says Owino.

Early this year, Melvine Kerubo, a resident of Kajulu in Kisumu County received a two months training on making mats and carpets using human hair waste.

“The training was intense and I was able to master the process from start to end. I was attracted to it because of the aspect of conserving the environment. You know human hair waste is all over which means raw materials are readily available,” she said, adding that she is planning to open her place for mats and carpets production in October, 2022.

Linet Akinyi, one of the current trainees holds a mat from human hair waste

At Alisam Product Development and Design, I meet one Michael Otieno who is in charge of training those willing to take up the initiative. He says human hair waste goes through various stages, before it finally becomes a mat or a carpet.

The first stage is of course collection of the hair from salons. At Alisam Product Development and Design, sorting is done before the hair is washed with warm water and soap. After that, it is sterilized using a drug known as Asiton. “We do this basically to kill germs because we don’t know how the hair was previously handled,” says Michael.

The hair is then aired in the sun to dry. This takes a day, given the fact that Kisumu is sunny on most occasions. Short hair is then joined using hands to achieve the desired length. The size of doormats range from 60cm by 30cm to square 1m by 1m, all depending with client specifications.

One needs at least 1kg of sorted, sterilized and aired human waste hair to come up with normal sized door mat. After drying, the hair is straitened using an equipment known as weaving frame, which is available locally at the cost of Sh8, 500 (about USD 70.6). Sewing is then done using a sewing machine. “The human waste hair is the only raw material, from start to finish unless the client wants some decorations added,” adds Michael.

Florence Aluoch is the owner of Flo salon in Mamboleo. Before meeting Owino in 2016, she used to collect the human hair waste and hand it to guys who move around collecting garbage from households for dumping elsewhere.

She had to part with Sh500 (about USD 4.1) weekly. At times, she used to burn the waste which was in itself hazardous to the environment. But since she met Newton, her duty is to collect the waste and hand it over on a weekly basis.

“I am grateful because I no longer pay to have the waste dumped elsewhere. I know the waste goes into making mats and carpets which is good for the environment. The carpets and mats from human hair waste are very strong compared to ordinary ones,” she says.

Florence Aluoch at her salon with some of the collected hair

Her sentiments are shared by Sarah Adero, a salon owner in Wath Orego. She used to burn waste from her salon, before meeting Newton in 2019. She says things have changed for the better.

“I used to burn the waste and people around were complaining because of the smoke emitted.  When Newton came into the picture, things changed because he provided an avenue of disposing off the waste. I use the mats from the human hair waste, they are strong and easy to clean compared to the normal ones.”

Owino says that among the challenges they face is being prevented from collecting hair from certain salons, due to what he termed as cultural beliefs attached to human hair. “Most of our people still believe in the Western products and they do not attach any meaningful value to products produced from waste. Therefore marketing products from waste is a challenge,” he says.

“We still have a lot of cultural beliefs attached to human hair. We believe that if someone collects your hair, we attach it to witchcraft. So some people do not actually allow us to collect this waste.”

According to Christopher Aura, Deputy Director Freshwater System at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), some plastics, in this case human hair waste breaks into micro-plastics and has adverse effects on aquatic life.

He advises saloonists not to dump the waste, urging them to instead place at strategic places for possible recycling.