The business of making a variant of hairdos called braiding was until recently the exclusive preserve of women. But not only are men involved in the business these days, they have literally hijacked it from the womenfolk. This is particularly so with Ivorian braids, which remains the toast of many fashion freaks. Introduced to the Nigerian market a few years back, Ivorian braids are made by extending the hair with the aid of attachments that are woven into long tiny stretches. Hence in Nigeria, the hairdo is popularly called One Million Braids. Although the name gives one the impression that when completed, the strands on the head should count up to one million, it is not exactly so. But the strands are usually many enough to require not less than six hours to do. This hairstyle that has been so warmly embraced in Nigeria originated from Cotonou, the capital of neighbouring Republic of Benin. Findings revealed that the attraction to the style began with the skill and fineness with which some young men popularly called Cotonou Boys handled it. With skill and fineness came the high patronage that automatically gave the young men an economic edge over their female counterparts. With each hairdo costing about N3,500 and the possibility of doing two in a day, the Cotonou Boys are smiling to the bank on a daily basis. Seun, owner of Ronstar Braiders, located opposite the Ogba Retail Market in Lagos, says the business is lucrative and has helped him and his brothers to live well. "I may not be very rich, but I make a living conveniently from this trade," he said. He said he found that women who desired braids preferred their services to those of their female counterparts because they were able to braid continuously for many hours. "That makes it possible for us to finish the braids in good time, because some women could get tired if it takes too long to complete," he noted. Seun, a National Diploma holder, said to make the one million braids, a customer needs to be seated for about six hours, with no fewer than three people making the braids. Tracing the origin of Ivorian braids in Nigeria, he said many years ago, it served as the means of livelihood for many female indigenes of Cotonou, who later had to resettle in Badagry, Nigeria. He said, "Back in Cotonou, men never braided hair. Young men learnt it while assisting the womenfolk who engaged in it. As far as I know, that was how we learnt braiding. We started braiding on commercial basis when we got here (Lagos) and discovered that we were idle because most of us could not afford to go to school." Asked if he would leave braiding for any other business, Seun said he did not see how that would be possible. But he said he would not mind an opportunity to export his services to Europe or America. Seun cited an instance when a man accompanied his wife to the centre to braid her hair. "He said he loved his wife to do the style but she always complained of boredom while doing it, so he decided to come with her. As they chatted away, they did not realise that we had finished the braids," he recalled. In a separate chat with Saturday Punch, Togbe, another Beninoise, recalled that he picked interest in braids many years ago at his aunt's shop in Badagry. Now the manager of Philip Final Touch Braiders, off Wemco Road, Ikeja Lagos, he recalled that Nigerian women used to travel across the border to make braids in Cotonou before the braiders decided to move to Badagry and subsequently to Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. He attributed their decision to spread across Nigerian cities to increased demand as well as the search for bigger market. His ultimate plan, he said, was to travel abroad to meet the demands of Nigerians who are based there. Togbe, who now charges N30,000 to train an apprentice for three months in the art of braiding, said, "Many of our customers who are based abroad seize the opportunity of their visits to Nigeria to make their hair before going back. And there are a handful of them." Pointing at a customer whose hair was being braided, he added, "That woman is one of them. Already, some of them are trying to see how some of us can be established abroad. We are taking our time because many of the shops in this axis belong to us. We are all brothers." With three of his siblings now working with him, he recalled the frustration they experienced during their stay in Badagry. "The people there were not willing to pay us well because they had seen it all," he said. He noted that respite came their way when some customers who used to travel to Badagry to braid their hair began to persuade them to spread out to places like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. He noted that they were preferred to Nigerian women in the business because they were more thorough. "We don't do any other type of braiding except the twisting braids, and we are very good at it because it originated among our people. No matter the style, once it is twisting, we can make it. "Customers say they prefer the seriousness, speed and focus with which we work on their hair. Some say they detest the habit of ladies talking while making their hair. From the N1,200 we charged for braiding in Badagry, the hairdo now costs N3,500. "The cost is increasing because we only use the Ivorian hair attachments which we have to import from Cotonou. We insist on the attachment because it enhances our work and is lighter on customer's head than others. Besides, the special attachment relaxes better in hot water. So our customers know they don't have to come with any attachment. The cost of the attachment is factored into their bills." Another braider and breadwinner of his family, Mautin, said despite its high cost, some women do the one million braids because they can keep it for a long time. He explained that depending on one's ability to maintain it, one could keep the hairdo for as long as six months. He said the only thing to do was to wash and dry it regularly or clean it with spirit, cream or to dry and repack it. Mautin said that some of his Nigerian customers who lived in Europe kept the hairdo for as long as one year because the temperature there is cooler and made it difficult for the hair to store sweat, smell or cause itching. A customer, Mrs. Oluwadipe Alao, who spoke with our correspondent, said she preferred Cotonou Boys to Nigerian women because they were focused and they kept to the time they set to finish the braids. "They don't gossip or talk while braiding. They hardly get tired and you don't find them going about when they should be working. So, if they tell you they'll be through in six hours, you are sure it will be so. "I do this style, at least, five times in a year. I opt for it each time my husband gives the signal that I should, because he likes it. It is painful, but I endure it because of him. He picks the bill. But I keep it for just one month because I love to pour water on my head. " Mrs. Lovena Agu, a Nigerian resident abroad, said besides making her look younger, braids gives her the needed break from frequent visits to the salon. The middle-aged woman explained why she prefers male braiders. She said, "I have been making my hair with them for more than eight years. Generally, I preferred men doing my hair because they concentrate more and are more serious-minded. Their work is neat and perfect. I like their touch. The last time I did braids was three years ago, and I carried it for about six months. My husband also says it makes me look younger and fashionable." Corroborating Agu, a newly wed woman who identified herself simply as Kemi told Saturday Punch that she was at the braiding centre at the behest of her husband. "He told me that he wanted me to do the tiny, long, twisting style that he sees some ladies do," she said. Although she appeared tired, Kemi, who initially declined a chat with our correspondent, said she was able to come for braiding because she was on vacation. "I am preparing to resume. I don't do the style often," she said the punch.