Although she was only 11 when she left her native Ethiopia, Abai Schulze maintained close ties with her birth country. Sixteen years later, she made her way back to launch a luxury handbag and leather accessories business. As founder and creative director of ZAAF, Abai’s personal calling was to build a high-end globally recognised fashion brand built on quality products sourced from Ethiopia and made by local artisans. As a designer schooled in economic development, she wanted to showcase the best her country has to offer while creating jobs and building pride in “Brand Ethiopia”.
Written by Elisabeth Makumbi
“Real economic development is about promoting top quality products made from local resources that can find a place at the highest levels in the global marketplace. Our vision is really big. We want to set standards of excellence and innovation and show the world that an Ethiopian fashion brand can compete with the biggest names in the world in terms of quality and creative design.”
ZAAF, which means tree in Amharic, sells a range of elegant handmade leather handbags and accessories for both women and men. “I was inspired by the notion of deep roots reaching into the abundantly rich Ethiopian cultural and heritage, while bringing out beautiful new branches of creativity and functionality,” the young founder explains. The company’s products are delicately and delectably hand-crafted and woven by gifted artisans in a workshop in the lively metropolis of Addis Ababa. With her unique brand accompanying her distinctive life story, Schulze and ZAAF have become a household name across the globe.
Abai grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Gishen, a remote village in north-eastern Ethiopia. She had no documented family so the nuns had little choice but to put her up for adoption. At the age of 11, she was matched with an American family and moved to Texas. In her new home, she was surrounded by a nurturing environment, with four brothers and two sisters, and encouraged to maintain her mother-tongue language of Amharic. “My family placed a high value on faith, education, and travel and there were lots of opportunities to return to Ethiopia as well as visit other areas around the world,” Abai says. “I never missed a chance to intern or volunteer in different settings throughout Ethiopia, it kept me close to my roots.”
After graduating from George Washington University in the US with a degree in economics and fine arts, Abai interned at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to get into the economic development space and gain experience. Afterwards, she worked for a short period at Ashoka, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship dedicated to finding, selecting and supporting the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. With personal, family, and additional funding from various awards in hand, Abai was keen to move in a direction that would enable her to meld her academic background and skills with her passion for design. In 2013 she took the leap and moved back to Ethiopia to establish a business that would create jobs.
Abai explains, “The Ashoka fellows who shared their experiences as entrepreneurs inspired me and I increasingly felt the risk/reward trade-off between gaining additional work experience and launching a business in Ethiopia tipping towards the latter. I had planned to work for a few years before earning a graduate degree but my timeline changed.
“At a certain point an entrepreneur must jump. Just talking about an idea and accumulating knowledge about starting a business wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had the good fortune of growing up in a large household of natural entrepreneurs who greatly inspired me towards concrete action. I made it clear to friends and family that I was serious about starting a business and willing to take the risks. For me, this meant moving to Addis, making cold calls, visiting tanneries and building personal relationships with those involved in the business. I quickly learnt that launching and growing my business required unrelenting focus if I really wanted to see results. My return to Ethiopia was a ‘tough love’ kind of welcome but it put me in a position to progressively deliver against my goals.”
Although there was a market for the ZAAF brand, establishing the business was accompanied with the usual hardships associated with startups. “When you work for yourself, there is never a moment when you feel like you have no more work to do for that day – which is very different from when you are working for someone else,” Abai says. “On the more practical side, the biggest challenges came from lack of alignment of vision with those with whom we set out to collaborate. Strong consistent communication was key to getting us through those early days.” As a trailblazing female founder, Abai was very conscious of the constraints women solopreneurs face in Ethiopia. “Generally speaking, women have bigger challenges than men in starting a business. They often have less education and face discriminatory customs,” she explains. Regardless of the challenges, Abai argues that “If you love what you do, there are always ways to overcome and push through any challenges. Quantify your risks. Build up a tolerance for it and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you an accountable for your actions and progress on your goals,” adding “There is a growing community of female entrepreneurs in Ethiopia who are pushing past the challenges, doing very well and will for sure inspire the next generation of Ethiopian girls”.
It cannot be lost on Abai that she is one of those who inspire. Less than three years after the 27-year-old started ZAAF, it has become a recognized award-winning business with an online store that is popular in both Europe and the US. In Ethiopia, a workshop is located near the Atlas Hotel across from the bustling Shalla Public Park. The products sold online include not only ZAAF’s signature leather bags and accessories, but also shoes, scarves, and beachwear. The team behind the luxurious collection consists of 17 artisans, but the company does outsource orders when there is too much demand as happened with her SS 2015 collection (and personal favourite) featuring meticulous excellence with each piece finding its inspiration from a specific region in Ethiopia. The collection was crafted from the finest materials, adorned with vibrant colours, textures, and innovative patterns made on a traditional loom.
“I know this country has a bright future, and it’s a privilege to be just a small part of that.“
Some of the highlights of Abai’s journey include collaborating with Korto Mornolu at New York Fashion Week in February 2014 where the Ethiopian-American was thrilled to showcase the best of Ethiopia at one of the top fashion events in the world. “Ethiopia’s diverse population, resources, and deep heritage all contribute to a great product that is getting a lot of attention. I know this country has a bright future, and it’s a privilege to be just a small part of that.”
One would think that Abai would be most pleased by her numerous awards and global recognition but instead, her modesty shines through when she states, “my biggest pride is my talented and dedicated team in Addis who have been there for me since the beginning.”
Despite her hard beginnings, Abai remains cautiously humble. “I’m so honoured by all the accolades and to be a part of the new wave of African designers. It all comes down to persistence and following through on the vision of the brand — what this can signify for consumers and all those involved but also for the branding of Ethiopia and the continent itself.”
Have a strong vision
for the brand.
Quantify your risks. Build up a tolerance for it and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.
Make sure each worker knows he or she is engaged in a venture bigger than the sum of the parts.
Invest in your team by creating incentives based on their desires and needs. When you have a high turnover of employees, you can’t be consistent and your customers won’t be happy.