Books, Braids, and Clippers — The Inside Story of Student-Hairstylists on UI Campus

{ Prosper Olakunbi giving a customer a haircut on his floor in Independence Hall}

By: Habeeb Abdul & Tolulope Ayeye

Tucked away in one of the furthermost recesses of Tafawa Balewa Hall, the approach to Mrs. Aina’s shop gives no impression of a salon. It is hidden behind a solid concrete structure, in turn, flanked by a water tank on the left and a fairly dense array of bush and overhanging trees on the right. The diminutive woman, popularly known as ‘Mummy Blessing’ or ‘Mummy BB’ for short, did not start out wanting to practice hairdressing. Like every other one of her female siblings, she had simply acquired it and demonstrated skill.

Mummy BB’s story is full of happenstances. She regaled us with the narration of her early years as a pre-teen stylist who not only helped with her teacher’s hair in primary school but also attracted a traffic of hair-making customers to her mother’s clothes shop. However, the latter twist did not begin till post-secondary school.  She had failed the West African Senior School Certificate Examination and was now looking to avoid a seemingly endless stretch of joblessness. The result was a gig that lasted four years and was promptly abandoned following her admission into the College of Education. Married afterward, the interest remained scarce.

{Mrs. Aina at work on a customer’s hair]

Mrs. Aina appears to share more than just her child’s name with Blessing, a 200-level archaeology student who began hairdressing as a young girl. Unlike her more experienced counterpart, however, she diverges by practicing her skill on campus.

Blessing’s business is part of an emergent trend of student-hairstyling on campus. While there is a surplus of freelancers, salespeople, and tech enthusiasts, barbers or hairdressers on hostel corridors are a relatively new sight. Glancing at the upper recesses of Zik or Indy on a return from an evening class occasionally rewards you with a random picture of a barber and his perfectly unbothered customer.

For both, the setting is a convenient choice. The lack of a regular salon’s ambiance means little to the customers of Prosper Olakunbi, a 100-level student of the Faculty of Agriculture who charges a hundred naira less than regular, established barbers on campus. The same applies to female hostels where reticence reflects in invoices of hair-stylists. There is competition in their sums too.

Janet Ajibade, a 300-level student of Arts and Social Sciences Education demands 300 naira for normal braids while a similar service by Blessing incurs 500 naira. The difference is likely upended by Blessing’s disclosure of a benchmark rate of a thousand naira for wigs compared to the fluid rates charged by Janet. Among the regulars, their much higher rates are equally marked by competition. Although Mrs. Aina’s exclusivity in Balewa shields her from rivalry in undergraduate halls, its remoteness also means she is removed from potential new customers.

To deal with this, she combines mirth with attractive pricing. That can be as much as a thousand naira less. She stated that the costs on campus are even lower compared to those in places like Agbowo. Her comment holds true at barbing salons. Male students can expect a price tag of 700 naira on more distinctive hairstyles than low cuts, sometimes double the service equivalent on campus.   

Cost of Doing Business

One of the costs inherent in managing a salon on campus is the payment of rent into the school’s purses. These sums vary across halls, depending on the designation. A postgraduate hall costs between fifty to sixty thousand naira per annum while in undergraduate halls, it is around half. Off-campus, shops could cost as high as ten times more. This is added to the fact that stylists outside the school are required to join associations that also impose membership charges.

But even as these factors are convincing benefits for non-students, the inherent rigor of a bureaucratic system comes into play. At Perfect Touch salon in Obafemi Awolowo Hall, the owner appraised these correspondents of the difficulties of getting things done in her shop even as she recognized the low rent as being an encouraging factor in its choice as a business location. “I tried refurbishing my shop by using POP and I had to write a letter before doing it, but I was unable to.”

Student-stylists enjoy the best of the worlds. Their flexible working conditions reduce business costs to little more than tools and publicity. Prosper stated, “when we resumed, I printed these photocopies and put them in some ideal areas.” Those areas he described include kitchenettes and washrooms within the hall. As for the cost of equipment, he hazards that clippers range between ten to eighteen thousand naira. Our check of rechargeable hair clippers, his tool of choice, on Jumia, an e-commerce platform, revealed that the minimum falls lower to seven thousand naira.          

Attracting New Customers

Both student and non-students rely on minimally different tactics for attracting customers. Mrs. Aina’s competence barely extends to the use of social media and she relies instead on word-of-mouth referrals. She described the range of this, citing patrons from locations within and outside campus. For Prosper, he utilizes what he called “special moves,” in his customer retention strategy. These comprise a unique style of barbing that distinguishes him from others.

Janet pursues a different angle. For her, value is obvious to those who care. Describing one encounter, she stated, ” I had an experience with a client last semester when I was too busy to make her hair. She went to another person and came back a few weeks later because her hair was breaking because of the change of hands and also the price wasn’t convenient for her over there. So I attract my customers and I don’t beg them to stay.”

A comparison of business owners across both levels unmasks limitations on students’ businesses, however. While regulars and male students possess freer rein in their business, female stylists are forced to be more conscious. “In my hostel, you aren’t allowed to do jobs on the premises. What I do is I don’t paste a banner on my door telling people I make hair so as not to be caught. I do mine low-key.”

Books, Braids and Clippers

Yet, even as finances are a greatly appealing feature of the job, all the students we spoke to confer premium on their academics. Blessing leverages her free periods in scheduling appointments while Janet consistently reminds herself of her studentship. 

She stated, “I remember a client getting angry when I told her I wanted to read for a test when she wanted to make her hair and she did not patronize me again because of that. But I make sure I don’t make hair during tests or exams. I only make hair when I’m able to. And I don’t do it everyday too so I won’t forget what I have to do in school. I try to balance the two up but it has not been easy.”

The same pattern applies to Prosper who foregoes customers during periods of heightened academic activity.

COVID, Strikes and Hair Salons

On how they all manage during interruptions, the responses ranged from alternating to a new line of work to simply rethinking their schedule. Mrs. Aina refrained from incurring transport costs during the strike, only visiting her shop when customers had called ahead.

Prosper switched to providing home service to family, friends, and church members as the industrial action wore on. For Blessing, these periods are simply another opportunity to learn new skills.

Leave a Comment