Could the weave on your head be made from goat hair? Africa's sinister, billion-dollar world of fakes

Nigeria estimates that 40% of goods in circulation in the country were substandard and counterfeit

IN China, there is a huge wig and weave-making industry whose primary clientele is Africa. Many Africans can be found searching through places like Guangzhou’s enormous beauty exchange centre, Sanyuanli, looking for bargains to take home and sell. 

What they probably didn’t realise is that to beat the production costs of selling “human hair” wigs and weaves and make the business profitable, traders are selling a mixture of human hair and synthetic or goat hair to lower costs. To put it simply, there are going to be hundreds of women going around Africa’s major cities with goat hair on their head.

Africa, like many places around the globe, is full of “fakes” - counterfeit products and items masquerading as something else. There are fake “traditional” beads, masks and material produced and sold in African markets to tourists or collectors who may not be able to tell the difference. Consumer-driven clothing counterfeits, such as expensive “designer” handbags, jeans and sunglasses are bought at knock-off prices to satisfy superficial desires to own something important. 

In South Africa and Kenya, there have even been instances of counterfeit foods hitting the streets. In Kenya there has been a dramatic rise in meat consumption, as the middle-class population emerges. Consumption of meat has increased from 316,115 tonnes in 1991 to 606,169 tonnes in 2007. The problem comes about when there is a shortage in meat - in some places there simply isn’t enough beef. This led to a situation where police went after individuals who were selling donkey meat as beef. Kenyan consumers were so concerned that some of them stopped eating meat altogether. 

Similarly in South Africa, a study published by the local Stellenbosch University found that 99 of 139 samples of burgers, deli meats and sausages being sold, contained species not declared in the product label. These “species” were identified as donkey, water buffalo or goat meat. 

Whilst wearing a goat-hair wig or eating a donkey samosa may offend some, there are far more sinister fakes and counterfeit products that continue to pour into the African market every year - each of these life-threatening. 

The national and cross-continental efforts to stem this trade have been commendable. Earlier this year, baby food, cosmetics, televisions, mobile phones and toys were among goods worth $5.6 million seized during an Interpol-coordinated operation targeting organised crime groups trading fake and illicit products across eastern and southern Africa. Operation Wipeout, as it was called, conducted across seven countries – Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia – between April and June, resulted in some 644,000 goods seized and more than 260 individuals arrested or placed under investigation.

Unfortunately due to high demand and corruption combined with poor monitoring at various country ports, it is a hard war to wage and costs the continent a fortune. In Tanzania, the Confederation of Tanzania Industries estimates that between 15%-20% of all merchandise circulating in the country is counterfeit. Kenya’s Anti-Counterfeit Agency estimates that the country loses $790 million annually to fake goods, in Morocco the economy loses between $680 million - $1.3 billion annually while the Nigerian Standard Organisation estimates that 40% of goods in circulation in the country were substandard and counterfeit. 

Fake food

Interpol has warned that food counterfeiting has become the target of international syndicates because “it is as - if not more - lucrative than drug, organ and human trafficking, and it carries less risk.” This is extremely high-risk for consumers since suppliers will have little consideration of the harmful effects of what has been included in food products. There have been cases where rat poison and other dangerous chemicals have been found to be present in fraudulent food in place of other more expensive and legitimate additives. 

During Operation Wipeout in Tanzania, one tonne of unapproved baby formula was seized. With most African countries importing manufactured food products and estimates that up to 7% of global trade consists of counterfeit goods combined with poor scrutiny by customs, Africa is extremely vulnerable to the threat of global food counterfeiting. 

Here are just a few examples of fake food displayed on FoodFraud:

Counterfeit drugs

The threat from counterfeit pharmaceutical products is hardly new; it has garnered a great deal of international attention and many national authorities have long waged their own war against these drugs. Nonetheless, the statistics continue to stagger. Worldwide sales of counterfeit medicines could top $75 billion this year, a 90% rise in five years, according to an estimate published by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in the US. 

In 2012 a major operation, titled VICE GRIPS 2 was organised by the World Customs Organisation in partnership with the Institute of Research against Counterfeit Medicines, and 16 customs administrations in Africa joined in. The operation was conducted simultaneously at 16 major seaports on the east and west coasts of Africa from July 11 to 20 2012, leading to the seizure of more than 100 million counterfeit products of all categories. 

Of 110 maritime containers inspected by customs officers, 84 were found to contain counterfeit or illicit products, with the biggest shipments being discovered in Angola, Togo, Cameroon and Ghana. During another operation in Angola this year, one of the largest consignments in the history of counterfeit goods (specifically anti-malarials) was discovered. The consignment was large enough to treat more than half of Angola’s annual malaria patients.

In South Africa, up to 20% of medicines in the local market are said to be fake and last year a series of raids in Egypt found counterfeit medicines worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2004, in Angola, according to the National Department of Intellectual Copyright Crime of the Economic Police, approximately 70% of medicines used by the Angolan population were forgeries. 

In Kenya, a survey by the National Quality Control Laboratories and the Pharmacy and Poisons Board found that almost 30% of the drugs in Kenya were counterfeit, while in Nigeria, the Ebonyi State Task Force on Counterfeit and Fake Drugs reported that approximately 48% of goods and drugs imported into the country were substandard or counterfeit.

The impact of counterfeit medicines on Africans is devastating - the World Health Organisation estimates 100,000 deaths every year. It is estimated that one third of malaria medicines used in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are fraudulent and the British think-tank, International Policy Network, estimates that globally 700,000 deaths a year are caused by fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs—comparing the death toll to the equivalent of “four fully laden jumbo jets crashing everyday.” 

One of the most publicised incidence of counterfeit drug deaths was in 2008 in Nigeria when mothers, wanting to alleviate their children’s teething pains, were unknowingly administering poisons to their infants. Eighty-four babies died in one of the cruellest waves of infant mortalities from fake drugs to hit the country. That time the killer was My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture, a syrup sold to deal with teething pains, but which was fake and contained a deadly mix of diethylene glycol, more commonly known as anti-freeze. This causes vomiting, diarrhoea, kidney failure, liver damage, central nervous system damage and at times death.

Counterfeit car parts

Counterfeit car products look very similar to the originals but they almost always deviate in terms of the specifications or composition, and therein lies the problem. These fake goods range in quality and can result in death particularly if they are car parts which are meant to provide critical safety components - such as headlights, windscreens and brake pads. 

In Nigeria for example, a 2011 study by the National Automotive Council showed that fake parts contributed to two-thirds of accidents. In Ghana, Toyota even launched an awareness campaign on the dangers associated with the use of fake spare parts following the increasing influx of counterfeit parts unto the market, the sophistication and advancement of these products, customers’ ignorance of their existence and most importantly, the negative impacts these counterfeit Toyota parts have on customers’ vehicle performance and life span. Some of the most commonly imitated parts in Ghana include oil, fuel and air filters, brake pads, drive belts, clutch systems, and brake fluids. 


Across Africa, the growth in trade of illicit cigarettes has been driven by low production costs and high levels of demand. In North Africa, contrabrand tobacco is said to be a $1 billion trade. There are even reports by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which concluded that cigarette smuggling has provided the bulk of financing for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

In southern Africa the illegal trade in counterfeit and illicit cigarettes has grown at a phenomenal pace and now comprises one of the most prevalent and problematic counterfeited items available on the black market. More than one in five cigarettes smoked in South Africa are illegal products, which equates to over 20% of the total market. The impact of counterfeit cigarettes on a person’s health can be devastating - as stated by the US Centre for Regulatory Effectiveness: “any counterfeit cigarettes manufacturers use mostly tobacco waste, poor, substandard tobacco even mouldy leaf tobacco. Counterfeit cigarettes in the filter  paper use inferior quality products even waste or contaminated waste products…produce a large quantity of carcinogenic substances [and that] the tar content  significantly exceeds the national standard. [They can also] contain  “bemisia tabaci” eggs that, once inhaled, will be like “pork tapeworm” as chronic  parasitic in humans, the large population of which will cause very great harm to  the nervous system and, in severe cases, can lead to necrosis of the brain.”

Counterfeit cosmetics 

Markets all over Africa are flooded with fake cosmetics and counterfeit perfumes. In North Africa, consumers still view cosmetics as superfluous compared to basic necessities so cheap counterfeit versions are popular. In Morocco for example, only 60% of cosmetics sales happen via the traditional channels. 

But it’s not just in North Africa that they pose a problem. The Kenyan anti-counterfeit agency last year intercepted fake beauty products on their way to the Republic of Congo from China worth $125,000 and that contained a variety of dangerous substances. The FBI has warned that phoney cosmetics often contain things such as arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium (all known carcinogens) along with high levels of aluminium and dangerous levels of bacteria. Some of these products have caused conditions like acne, psoriasis, rashes, and eye infections. 

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