No Beauty School Dropouts Here—Men Are Turning to an Unlikely Industry in Uganda
Obed Akampulira used to spend his days as a mechanic, breathing life into rusty cars and motorbikes. Now he’s getting creative with his hands in an entirely different way: performing magic in a Ugandan beauty salon.
“These young men and ladies, they enjoy being pampered. I think it is the generation of pampering,” says 29-year-old Akampulira as he sorts through a container filled with dozens of vibrant nail polish bottles.
“There are men and boys who come to the salon and call their girlfriends: ‘Come and see me; I’m here in a spa; they’re doing my feet!’ ” the certified cosmetologist says.
Uganda is still a patriarchal society with deeply rooted ideas of masculinity; the man of the house is usually the breadwinner. Many men consider “real” jobs to be driving motorbike taxis, also known as bodabodas, or toiling on farms. But an increasing number in the East African country—where youth unemployment is at least 60 percent, according to a 2012 report, and 38 percent of the population earns less than $1.25 per day, according to UNICEF—have carved out successful careers in the burgeoning beauty sector, allowing them to gain more financial freedom and support their families. (Uganda was named the most entrepreneurial country in the world in a recent study.)
Roaming mobile manicurists—toting towering plastic baskets full of polish, clippers, and other beauty supplies—and their more stationary counterparts, who have set up shop at bustling markets, are now frequent sights in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Some also travel to their customers’ homes.
At Sparkles salon, at least 40 percent of the staff are men, all of whom offer a range of services, including haircuts, plaiting, weaving, manicures, pedicures, says owner and founder Donnah Masolo, who first opened her salon in downtown Kampala 15 years ago.
Back then, most salons in the area consisted of “one hairdresser and two chairs,” she says, and the grooming industry was more of a backup profession if other careers didn’t work out. Today, the culture and the business has shifted, with small and large beauty salons employing both men and women.
“Since men are breadwinners in most African societies, especially Uganda, they discovered early enough that [working in the beauty sector] could earn their wives and kids a living,” Masolo says, adding that the same trend can be seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and South Africa. In Rwanda, it’s even been suggested that men may be “taking over” the beauty industry.
Akampulira was introduced to the profession by his brother, who was working in a Kampala spa at the time. When Akampulira went to visit him, he found himself transfixed by the process as he watched clients, especially the men, getting their nails trimmed and cleaned.
“Men would say, ‘They are cutting my nails—oh, my God, I can see the change,’ ” says Akampulira. “I liked seeing the transformation. I thought, ‘I wish I could be the one changing their lives.... I must learn this.’ ”
Friends volunteered their hands for practice, and Akampulira spent months honing his skills at Kampala’s Top Styles Beauty School.
Sparkles also has its own institute, where students study for nine to 18 months to meet international standard requirements.
“We are considerate of students from poor families with a passion but who fail to raise school fees,” says Masolo, adding she usually allows long-term payment options and that it is “gratifying” to see both men and women earn a living doing something they love. “Next term, we shall sponsor 10 students from very poor families who exhibit a high level of interest and passion in cosmetology using our own funds.”
In the future, Sparkles may consider funding a number of incoming students each year as part of a corporate social responsibility strategy, she says.
Politicians, businessmen, and even priests are regular clients of Akampulira, who joined Sparkles in May 2009 and began working alongside four male and two female manicurist and pedicurists.
“These days, Ugandans think beauty is for everybody,” he says. “A man can come to the salon twice a week to cut the hair and the nails. Things are changing.” He attributes the rise in awareness about one’s appearance to a growing middle class and the increased popularity of social media.
As for female clients, most women are happy to have a man work on them, and some say the men offer better care, says Akampulira.
However, time in the salon isn’t just reserved for glamorous transformations. Cosmetologists also often act as de facto counselors, Akampulira says.
“We deal with people’s lives,” he says. As a born-again Christian, it’s not uncommon for him to end up praying with some clients once he gets to know them.
He finds the job rewarding emotionally and financially. Thanks to his career, he says, he’s been able to pay his family’s rent, buy a motorbike, send his six-year-old son to school, and purchase a plot of land with two banana plantations.
At Sparkles, a manicure starts at about $3 and a pedicure is $7, or it’s $10 for both. Akampulira says he’s earning more than when he was working as a mechanic. One staffer, who declined to be identified, performs a range of services and said it was hard to estimate what he earns per day but that he can see up to 50 clients in one day.
Still, more traditional careers are often encouraged by the government. With Uganda’s election just months away, the country’s president recently reiterated to millions of youths that they can become “rich” through agriculture.
Instead of telling the jobless in town to go into farming or office jobs, the government should help them set up spas and salons, says Akampulira, adding that one salon can employ 20 young people.
“To me, this is even better than working in a bank, because I’m paid every week,” he says. “A person who’s working in a bank will wait for a month [for a paycheck], and the person working in the bank is there getting the little she’s earning to come to the salon.”