Abai Schulze: from Ethiopian orphanage to making unique luxury leather goods and exporting to the world

Abu Mubarik June 29, 2022
Abai Schulze founded ZAAF. Image via lionessofafrica

Abai Schulze is an Ethiopian entrepreneur who is into the production of leather goods like handbags, backpacks and clutch bags under the brand name ZAAF Collection. Schulze uses local talent and resources in Ethiopia to make her products and then export them to the rest of the world.

Her business was borne out of her desire to be a major player in the leather and bag industry in her country. Ethiopia is known to have the largest livestock population in Africa. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, Ethiopia has around 53 million cattle.

This makes Ethiopia one of the leading producers of leather but mostly supplies to the Western market. Schulze believed her country was not benefiting from leather production and felt there was a need to add value to it. So when she returned from the United States, where her life journey had taken her, Schulze created ZAAF in 2013 at the age of 24. Prior to her return, she worked at Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) as well as for Ashoka in Washington, DC.

“ZAAF was conceived with the goal of creating new economic opportunities by leveraging local resources,” she told The Network Journal. “Ethiopia was mostly exporting raw hides and skins until such export was banned a few years ago. Since then, it has enhanced domestic leather tanning and stimulated manufacturing (like ours). As a result, new jobs are created, higher income is generated, and economic development is boosted,” she said.

Schulze said her inspiration to create ZAAF came from her driving passion and vision, which centers around using her education and experiences to create economic opportunities in her homeland.

“So ZAAF really is a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions using tangible elements had always been a driver for me, even though I had spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics,” she told LoA.

Schulze chose the name ZAAF because it is the Amharic word for “tree” and also has symbolic meaning across all cultures.

“I was inspired by the notion of deep roots reaching into abundantly rich Ethiopian culture and heritage while bringing out beautiful new branches of creativity and functionality. It is a theme that works well for most of our products are named after Ethiopian trees,” she explained.

The Ethiopian-born entrepreneur said her artisans work hard and are always focused on quality control and continuous improvement in all they do. She and her team have their own facility in the country that allows them to experiment with different techniques and designs as well as invest in the team so they could establish a strong foundation to create a sustainable company, she told LoA.

Schulze was born in the Ethiopian province of Wollo. She moved from an orphanage in Addis Ababa to the United States after she was adopted by an American family at the age of 11. In the U.S., she attended George Washington University to study economics. 

Her ZAAF Collection has been recognized in several ways. The brand has appeared on runways at New York Fashion Week and has been featured in some of the biggest lifestyle and fashion magazines such as Vogue. It has also received the UNESCO Tremplin Prize for Entrepreneurship and its products can be found in boutiques in Ethiopia, the U.S., France, and Kenya.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 29, 2022


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