Abai Schulze was born in Ethiopia but she could have wished for a better early childhood – at least, one that had a stable family in it – but that was not to be. She didn’t know her parents and she, thus, spent most of her early life in an orphanage in Addis Ababa.
It was anything but an easy life but fortune did smile on her about when she turned eleven.
A kind American family whisked the little girl away from the orphanage in a legal adoption which saw her relocate to the United States.
Her stay in the United States was interspersed with various summer holidays during which she would travel back to her home country and help out in hospitals and orphanages as a volunteer. Such visits enabled reconnection with her roots, while also helping her witness the economic transformation that was spreading throughout the country.
It was her desire to someday return for good and play a part in the transformation that was taking place, but she wanted to first study extensively and build a career in the United States. But all that changed in 2013 when she truncated her stay in the West and returned to Ethiopia at 24 years of age.
The plan was to establish a business in her homeland and a year after her return, she set up ZAAF; a company that produces handcrafted luxury leather handbags and accessories.
Before her dive into the Ethiopian entrepreneurial scene, Abai obtained degrees in Economics and Fine Arts from the George Washington University, United States, after which she had stints at a government agency, and then, Ashoka; an NGO that focuses on social entrepreneurship.
Her time at the NGO was marked by numerous interactions with many entrepreneurs and this may have worked her into some kind of appetite for business.
“I was behind the scenes pushing paper and I realised I wanted to be them,” says Abai. “The buzz is happening right now in Ethiopia, and I aimed to tap into it as fast as I could.”
And that brought her back home. She didn’t really know much about the Ethiopian business climate at the time and let’s face it, she couldn’t have possibly known enough. So she decided to stop beating herself up over what she didn’t know and just work with what she knew. It was clear that business was booming back home, so she dove right in.
Her choice of business may have been motivated by her connections with art. ZAAF, which translates to “tree” in the local Amharic language, manufactures high-end leather items such as handbags, weekender luggage, and laptop cases.
The items are sold online via the ZAAF website and in a number of stores in parts of Europe and the United States. The high-end nature of the wares produced by Abai’s company means that markets abroad are known to bring the most sales, but the rich and middle-class who form the expat and diplomatic community in Addis Ababa also patronize the brand.
“We want to make ZAAF a gift shopping destination. If you have a guest and you really want to show them what Ethiopia can do, you buy them a ZAAF bag,” explains Abai.
Even from her younger days, Abai had always been interested in creative arts. During her college days, her dissertation was based on highlighting Ethiopia’s potential as a destination for textile and garment factories.
She also had a knack for manufacturing and she opted for the production of bags as a compromise since she couldn’t afford the financial demands of large-scale manufacturing. It was her thing for arts and manufacturing, and the fact that there was a market opportunity in the bag-making industry (shoe-making companies were most common), that led her into establishing ZAAF.
Although there is no shortage of the raw material and manpower in Ethiopia, the African entrepreneur struggled initially with the business’ finances and there was also a ‘zipper situation’ that surprisingly held up production for a time (yes, it does sound like a rather small detail but when you think about it, it sort of makes all the difference).
Apart from the investments of time and money, Abai also had to forge relationships with stakeholders in the industry, and that wasn’t always easy. There were countless trips to tanneries and leather markets, numerous spikes in the price of the raw-materials, plenty compromises, and many doors slammed in her face, but she persevered.
Looking back to those days, she would be pleased by how far she’s come as her company is carving a niche for itself as a household name for quality carry-ons – one that could pretty much give the likes of Louis Vuitton and Gucci a run for their money pretty soon.
Featured Image Courtesy: LinkedIn/@abaischulze