If one were to be asked what is one of the most lucrative export of Myanmar, the chances that the correct answer would immediately spring to mind are not that high because most people don’t think of human hair as a commodity. Human hair is, not surprisingly, the prime materials for making high quality wigs, weaves and hair extensions, and Myanmar hair is the softest, most sought after hair in Asia.
In Myanmar, women don’t pay to have their hair cut, they are usually paid as their soft locks are very valuable. The pricing of hair depends on the quality and weight, which is weighed in “viss,” a traditional Burmese unit of measurement, roughly equal to 1½ kilograms. A trader would estimates the price of hair by its feel and a simple scrape of the bundle with an open scissor arm to test for firmness and smoothness.
Normal transactions range from 15,000 kyat (US$11) to over 200,000 kyat (US$150) for hair over 10 inches. Given that the Myanmar minimum wage is 3,600 kyat (US$2.70) a day, this is a welcomed bonus income for most households. The hair that fetches the highest price is usually from women with ankle-length hair whose locks can be divided into many bundles to be sold individually.
Global hair trade is estimated to be worth US$87.4 million in 2016, with Myanmar the third largest exporter after India and Tunisia.
In Myanmar, hair can be considered sacred: The gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the Buddhist country’s holiest sites, is believed to be built on strands of Buddha’s hair. But it’s also common practice for women here to cut their hair to make ends meet and during Buddhist New Year celebrations, when some women and girls become nuns for a short time and cutting off their hair shows an absolute sacrifice, a detachment from any distractions.
Much of the hair finds its way to China where it is processes and sold to hairstylists worldwide. But as Myanmar grows richer, fewer women are willing to part with their luscious locks and traders are worried that dwindling supplies will drive up prices. It is however still an important income for the low income families.