Taking Ethiopia’s premium leather craft heritage to the world

Abai Schulze

Abai Schulze is the founder of ZAAF-a collection of premium Ethiopian leather products and accessories.

“When I was a child residing in an orphanage in Addis Ababa I saw being a teacher as very significant (which it is). I had no concept of business other than the fact that I was good at braiding hair,so people would ask me and I would make a bit of bucks,” opens up Abai Shulze, the founder of ZAAF Collections.

She went to America at the age of 11, enrolled in their education system and later expanded her horizons exponentially. She became a global citizen with bigger perspective of making a difference in the world.

Anchored on the values of being the best in her craft, she started doing modest clothing and fashion design while in school. After sometime, what started as a hobby quickly transformed into dreams of making a creative business in Ethiopia that would create jobs and produce exceptional products.

“I worked hard in university on an economics degree- my senior thesis examined Ethiopian trade and development. I also kept up my fine arts studies to support my creative skills. After a year of normal employment after graduating I went out on my own to create ZAAF, and in the midst of all the hard work and challenges I never had the bandwidth to reflect on whether I was forging any type of name or reputation- my passion was designing and producing original beautiful pieces that leverage the richness of Ethiopian materials and culture, while setting high standards and growing capacity for our skilled artisans,” she recalls.

ZAAF means “tree” in Amharic. The brand is drawn from timeless Ethiopian roots with ambitions to conquer the international market.

ZAAF Collection luxury leather bag

The firm employs top artisan who craft premium leather handbags and accessories. “Our collections start with design- with seeing how we can combine wonderful Ethiopian leathers with hand loomed accents, cow horn, and other natural materials,” shares Abai.

ZAAF designs are intended to be beautiful and highly functional. The artisans works around the clock to produce pieces of impeccable quality. “We are deeply committed to raise our standard and perception of Ethiopia and produces of top luxury leather products,” she adds.

“Quality and perception are very important for us. Why? We also get feedback from our clients and infuse their recommendations in our productions so as to make relevant products and designs that fit the market needs.”

Target market

ZAAF products are available worldwide.

The firm targets people who love beautiful original pieces, who appreciate the synthesis of a deep cultural heritage and modern creative functionality in a product.  “Our customers are largely professionals, many in the earlier stages of their careers. They are attracted by something high end and original that isn’t in the usual name brand luxury wares,” says Abai.

While ZAAF products draws from timeless Ethiopian roots, it is also about identifying with being part of a global community of people who work hard, who want make a difference, and who enjoy life, especially the friends and family they may have all over the world. Thus, their luxury leather products are very attractive to the international market. “They are beautiful, functional and make an original lifestyle statement.”

Abai (Seated Center) with her team

ZAAF boutique will be opening in the Washington DC area this year. While ZAAF has been sold online and in local boutiques, this will be the first branded venue outside of Addis. “It will not be your normal store- it will be an experience. There will be special events to mark the launch, other gifted designers from the African continent will be featured, and some very unique options for customers are in the works. DC is a very appropriate venue given its international character,” reveals Abai.

When have you been most satisfied in your life?

 “When someone expresses their enthusiasm and joy over something we have been able to offer. They see a wonderful piece that they look forward to making part of their lifestyle and sharing with friends. I see the hard work, the skilled artisans, the jobs that piece has helped provide. I see the historical cultural roots and inspirations taking flight into the modern world,” she explains further.

Abai loves to build people and see them flourish in their careers, “. I love to see our team members come into their own, to discover that they have so much more to offer than they thought. I love doing team-building exercises that draws the best out of everyone and break down the unfortunate paradigms regarding labor and management that endures especially in developing countries.”

According to her, capacity building is not just about seeing technical skills increase and expand- it is about creating workplaces that are highly productive and satisfying to all involved, that affirms their individual worth and gives them the sense of being part of something important.

A model carrying ZAAF Collection luxury leather bag

A day at work

“When what you do encompasses people and time zones all over the world, “day” may be a misnomer for a workday. When I am in Addis, I get up very early and do some follow-ups with clients outside of Ethiopia. Then I get to the office and my day involves almost anything including traveling to various places to select leather, dealing with bureaucratic issues, interfacing with team members, working on new designs, planning special ZAAF events in various parts of the world, working on marketing among others,” she explains.

After work in the office, she unwinds by catching up with friends in a social joint. It is important to build relations as some of her best ideas came out of downtime conversing and relaxing with friends and family. “I work and play in equal measure,”

She sometimes works till late in the night at home when need be.

Her success has been anchored around a warm and supportive family. Her Amharic parents and siblings encourage her with wise words.

She encourages young people to work hard without relenting to achieve their dreams.