Juliet Tumusiime makes eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic hair using banana stems. Photo: Juliet

By Pauline Odhiambo

When it comes to out-of-the-box ideas, making hair out of banana stems may sound implausible. But trust human ingenuity and the versatility of the world's breakfast favourite to peel off new layers of opportunity.

Ugandan entrepreneur Juliet Tumusiime, who came up with the concept, delivers to thousands of happy clients an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic wigs, using four abundantly available banana species in her native country.

"The idea emerged from personal frustration with the quality of my hair," she tells TRT Afrika. "Like many women, I had trouble dealing with an itchy scalp, allergies and dandruff whenever I would use synthetic hair."

Juliet zeroed in on the stems of four specific banana species out of more than 1,000 known varieties that grow worldwide. This was in 2015.

After perfecting the concept of transforming tough banana stems into silky strands in a project that took nearly three years to actualise, Juliet's company Cheveux Organique – which literally means 'organic hair' – now sells its products in Africa and beyond.

Juliet's company sells hair made from banana stems within Africa and in other markets abroad. Photo: Juliet

Entrepreneurship beckons

Juliet was working as a project manager in Uganda when she was tasked with researching the banana plant value chain.

"We were trying to find varieties of banana species that could withstand climatic changes and pests," she says of the project, which also evolved to yield banana flour from the fruit.

After completing her research, the next step was to get farmers to start growing these climate-resistant species.

This wasn't difficult for her as Juliet had grown up in a setting where nearly everyone she knew farmed bananas, a staple of Ugandan diets.

After a harvest, the stems would often be discarded or used as mulch in gardens. The farmers she worked with kept up the mulching tradition but sometimes made handicrafts from the discarded stems.

"These crafts reminded me of how we made dolls from banana stems during my childhood. I started thinking about what more could be made from the stems," Juliet recalls.

She dove deeper into research and discovered that banana stems were used to make fabric in India and the Philippines.

"I was inquisitive to know how they were doing this, and when I saw the process, it looked like the fibre could be turned into strands of hair," Juliet explains.

Making hair from banana stems involves an extraction process that transforms them into silky strands. Photo: Juliet


Emboldened by this discovery, she enlisted the help of scientists to experiment on extracted fibre.

"At that point, we didn't even know how to get the extraction machines in Uganda. People in Asia had those machines, but we used very local methods of manually scraping the stems," says Juliet.

"This process gave us white strands, which we dried and made nice twists on dolls."

But the twists were stiff and could not be further styled once set, prompting Juliet and her team to find ways of softening the strands.

"We finally managed to soften the fibre to the desirable standard and had our prototype in 2018, which was hair that could be dyed and braided," says the young entrepreneur.

Six years later, most of her orders come from Sweden, the US and the UK, where her clients value the hair for its biodegradable quality.

“It is itch-free and reusable up to three times," Juliet says of the hair she developed following consultations with dermatologists, haircare professionals and other specialists.

Banana stem hair is recommended to those who suffer allergies or dandruff from using synthetic options. Photo: Juliet

"Many people are unaware that the synthetic hair they wear is made from very toxic, non-recyclable plastic that is damaging to the environment," she states.

"Our banana-hair alternative is a game-changer. It can be disposed of and will completely biodegrade in weeks."

Her company produces about 5kg of banana fibre hair a month. The product is currently priced at approximately US $50 per 150gm, which is expensive for the ordinary user but justifiable on account of the hair's reusable quality, according to Juliet.

"The production process is still quite expensive at the moment as fibre extraction is manually done," says Juliet, whose staff comprises about 20 permanent employees.

"We are working on making the production process more efficient to lower the cost of the hair so that it is more accessible to everyone."

Protective hair sprays can help banana stem braids last longer. Photo: Juliet

Recycling initiative

To protect the product from mould while still in use, Juliet advises keeping it away from moisture, although it can be washed and dried in braided form to make it last longer. Protective hair sprays also help keep moisture at bay.

Like many other businesses, the process of manufacturing organic hair produces waste. Juliet and her team carefully practice what they preach on eco-friendly waste management by transforming most of it into craft items like lampshades and other decor items.

She has channelled her passion for recycling and eco-friendly projects by partnering with hair salons and companies in Kampala to dispose of synthetic hair safely.

"There's an area in Kampala where all the synthetic hair that is imported ends up in landfills along with our biodegradable trash," says Juliet.

"I want to spread the message of responsible segregation and disposal of synthetic plastics so that it doesn't end up in our waterways and food systems."

Juliet's company also makes craft items like lampshades and other decor items from banana stems. Photo: Juliet

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TRT Afrika