How ZAAF is rewriting Ethiopia and Africa’s Fashion Narrative

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Abai Schulze moved to Texas when she was 11. After her senior thesis on Ethiopia’s potential for exporting textile, she returned to her home country in 2014 at 25 and created ZAAF, a brand for handcrafted luxury-leather handbags and accessories produced by indigenous artisans. ZAAF’s objective to reposition the country’s luxury sector is rooted in Schulze’s dual identity as a Black woman of Ethiopian and American heritage. She draws her strength from this hybridity, pivotal to negotiating her space on the frontier Ethiopian/African market by challenging prevalent negative stereotypes cast on the region.

What have you learned from establishing a company at the young age of 25?

It’s been an amazing adventure filled with challenges. I’m fortunate enough to have made mistakes that will serve me well for the future (where the stakes will be higher) but in a context where missteps are not fatal to the endeavour. I’ve learned that people play a vital role in a company’s success, so it is essential to know those one is working with and how one’s vision aligns with them.

How do you view Ethiopia and what ways does the country rise above common stereotypes?

For the last few decades, the ‘Ethiopia’ brand has been stuck in the stereotypes of hunger and instability, rooted in events of the past. This brand needs to be updated to reflect the reality of the nation’s growth as well as human and cultural capital. Positioning a luxury brand synonymous with Ethiopia in the global market is an excellent way of displacing these stereotypes.

Where do you get your materials for your collection, is everything made in Ethiopia?

ZAAF was conceived with the goal of creating new economic opportunities by leveraging on local resources. Our raw materials are handpicked, handwoven, hand-cut, and handstitched in Ethiopia. There is a lot of personal interaction in making one bag from start to finish. In addition, our brand is attached to a strong heritage. The hand-woven geometrical shapes are very much present in Ethiopian fashion. We took it to the next level by integrating these ageless patterns with a range of high-quality Ethiopian leathers, and in some cases even working with cow horn or other locally sourced accent materials.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered in running this business, as a Black woman, Ethiopian and African?

The challenges of running a high-end firm in a frontier market are many. For instance, the gender challenge, but I try to not dwell on it. I also try not to worry if people treat me differently in business because I’m a Black woman. We African women are able to find creative ways to jump these hurdles when we face them. Life taught us that.

How are you providing good quality jobs and fulfilling your corporate social responsibility?

We offer a great set of benefits and compensation to our team. Beyond this, however – it is more about building a unique and positive team environment where people are enthused with energy each day as they head to work. We have a family type vibe with the pride of knowing that each member of the team is contributing positively and visibly to the reputation of the country.

Your brand follows a luxury aesthetic, how intentional is ZAAF’s signature as a creative form?

Our mission is to celebrate and promote Ethiopia, as well as the entire continent’s rich heritage and cultures through exacting top quality products made with indigenous natural resources by our gifted and brilliant artisans. Each piece draws its inspiration from a particular region and is crafted with the finest materials. Colour, texture and ageless patterns made on a traditional loom are beautifully merged with leather to create a discrete statement of elegance and practicality for those who are indeed at home in the world.

What advice would you give to aspiring African female entrepreneurs who want to utilise the resources of their native countries?

Our continent is rich with resources. There are many untapped sectors, but I would advise them to quantify their risks and build up an appropriate tolerance for risk. I also encourage that they surround themselves with people who inspire them and hold them accountable for their actions and progress on their goals.





A culture enthusiast, Christina Ifubaraboye holds a degree in mass communications from the University of Hertfordshire. Christina's interests lie in cinema, social justice, the media and the role it maintains in the digital age, while her focus is on challenging commonly misconstrued narratives in society.

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