This is why supporting the black hair industry matters

Image: ANENO BEAUTY BAR

A SYMBOL OF COMMUNITY

From the popular South African ’90s sitcom Streaks to African American-centred movies such as Beauty Shop, hair salons have been a significant part of black communities. Whether it was a salon situated inside a building or a tiny tented one on the side streets of ekasi, ask any woman about their first salon experience and many would probably share similar memories. They may recall their first relaxer treatment, or the trauma of having their hair being incorrectly handled, taking part in heated debates, or eavesdropping on the town’s latest gossip. The hair salon has become a huge part of our heritage — a place where everyone feels accepted and a haven for playful banter. The sometimes-small, unsophisticated four walls in our neighbourhoods not only feel like home, but also offer a place where people can gather to offload their struggles, receive counsel and step out strengthened with renewed confidence to face the world.

STYLES THROUGH THE AGES

Besides offering a kind of refuge, salons were also where we got to recreate some of our favourite icons’ best looks. In the late ’70s, when big disco hair was fashionable, thanks to the likes of Diana Ross, women would exit salons with their hair blown out or wearing slightly straightened afro textured wigs, commonly known at the time as“R Fifties”. In the ’80s it was all about the perm— the natural afro texture was traded in for sleek, glossy curls. Fast forward to the ’90s through to the 2000s and salons were churning out bum length box braids inspired by Boom Shaka, or fringed pixie cuts as a result of people asking for the popular “Rihanna” cut.

“Hair dressers and salons have always played a critical role in the community, especially in the lives of black women — both for economic and personal empowerment,” says Victor Msomi, salon owner and Inoar ambassador stylist. “Hairdressers play an important role in the empowerment of black women to feel confident, for example, in the workplace and socially, so a hairdresser being on top of the latest trends is important. Women turn to their hairdressers for advice — not just for their hair, but also life advice in general — that has not changed!” says Msomi.

A GROWING INDUSTRY

Today, the haircare industry is growing exponentially and is estimated to comprise over 34 000 hair salons catering to ethnic hair, according to the Employers Organisation for Hairdressing, Cosmetology and Beauty. However, this figure excludes the many unrecorded salons thriving in rural areas and townships. Black women also contribute billions annually to the purchase of haircare products and hair inches while big retailers such as Clicks, DisChem, and Foschini are working to supply the ever-growing demand by increasing the variety of natural haircare products on their shelves.

“To care for generations to come, the growth of the professional salon industry is of vital importance because of the role it can play in alleviating poverty in our communities, by hiring more people to work and eradicating crime,” explains Msomi. It’s also important to professionalise the industry. “It is only through investment in the industry and education about the industry that we will not only grow the number of salons, but the professionalism and compliance of the salons that offer hair services to black consumers,” says Msomi.

COMBING OUT THE KNOTS

Despite being well on the way to being one of the largest sectors that contribute to the country’s economy and provide new jobs, hair salons face a lot of challenges. Msomi explains some of the common factors that are hindering salon growth, such as lack of financing: “Hairdressers are not ‘trusted’ by financial institutions because we do not bank and generally hairdressers have poor or no credit profiles whatsoever. We are also competing with unprofessional, ‘backyard’ salons, who use poor-quality products and stylists who have no qualifications, but undercut prices.” Mpoomy Ledwaba, a young entrepreneur and founder of Aneno Beauty Bar, says that these challenges face all black businesses, not just salons.

“I don’t think the focus should be solely on black hair salons but rather black businesses as a whole. Looking at my journey of starting Aneno Beauty Bar to where I am now, I have seen a need for a capital investor. I had the big idea but had financial setbacks when I started the business. Black businesses tend to die at the ideation stage because of lack of funding.”

TAKING BACK OUR EDGES

Despite these challenges, one positive change is the increase in education when it comes to our hair, regardless of how we choose to keep it. In the past, favouring chemically treated hair meant information was scarce for those choosing to keep and grow natural hair. Even for those who chose to relax their hair, misinformation sometimes meant hairline and strand damage, with limited information for those looking to transition back to natural hair. With the growing trend of “hair-ducation”, salons have now become platforms for hairstylists and salon owners to educate and empower women about their hair choices.

“Because black hair salons are becoming more efficient, more education is being implemented by the stylists. Natural hair product manufacturing is also growing, which means knowledge is being passed down and working hand-in-hand within the hair salons and community to encourage growth,” says Smangele Sibisi, founder of Indalo Nubian Naturals salon. Her salon’s “natural styling only” business model not only empowers but also educates hairstylists and clients alike.

“I wanted to preach about the importance of ethnic hair. There was little to no natural hair when I started trading, and this made me realise how important it was for me to pass on my knowledge. I'm also about eliminating youth unemployment — this was a way to give opportunities to young South Africans, who are crazy in love with hair, to share their creativity for hair and to give them employment,” says Sibisi.

THE NEXT GENERATION

The future of black hairdressing is a community-built industry that shows no signs of slowing down and is more empowered than ever. The preservation of black hair salons is vital in not only growing communities, but empowering women too. With continued support for small black businesses, the need to reclaim the power of our hair is growing with each new salon. It’s an opportunity to create a new wave of hairstylists, salon owners, hair product manufacturers, and clients that know what they want and are more equipped to get it.

“There has been a massive shift in black salons. Hair manipulation techniques take into account the texture of the hair. Services are becoming niche too, catering to the girl with the ’fro, and there is also a shift of mindset that black women are happy with their natural hair. Customers are being educated about how to maintain their hair,” says Ledwaba.

Hairstylists are also being equipped with the tools they need to better treat hair, as well as being encouraged to branch out to start their own businesses through internal salon initiatives, hair academies, and hairstylist competitions hosted by large haircare brands, such as the Dark and Lovely Golden Scissors Awards and Sofn’free Hair Xperts.

“Women are expecting their stylists to give them options when it comes to the products they use at the salon and at home. Now more than ever, black women have options when it comes to quality hair products — whether they want to wear their hair naturally or have it straightened,” says Msomi.

“There are also more and more products on the market that celebrate the unique beauty of black women’s natural hair, and hairdressers have to be able to educate their clients on all the options available to them.”

This article first appeared in print in the Sowetan S Mag September 2019 edition. 

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