Taking African Luxury Design Global

Abai Schulze’s Plan to Globalize African Design

Africa’s design scene is coming alive. There is a renewed interest in the African design aesthetic as its authentic beauty quickly becoming globalised. Around the continent and the world there is new generation of design entrepreneurs who are pushing the envelope and creating innovate products which are appealing to global audiences.  One such entrepreneur is Ethiopian born Abai Schulze whose company ZAAF is on a growth path. ZAAF was launched in 2014 by Abai Schulze who also serves as the company’s Creative Director. The company’s design strategy leverages Ethiopia’s cultural assets and traditions to design modern leather products which are handcrafted from traditional looms by skilled artisans.  ZAAF’s product collection includes a range of leather products such as handbags, leather goods, and jackets. ZAAF uses handpicked raw materials, which are hand-woven and stitched.

Credit: Zaaf

Abai was born in Ethiopia and spent some time in an orphanage. She was later adopted by an American family and went to the United States even though she kept her ties to her homeland. Abai had always cherished a passion for the creative arts and the creation of economic development in developing countries. Unsurprisingly, this dual passion led her to study economics and a minor in fine arts at The George Washington University.  During her studies Abai would make frequent trips to Ethiopia. On one of the trips, she took up an internship with USAID during which she worked with local artisans to help them create strategies for marketing their products online.

Credit Zaaf

Abai later did her senior year thesis on Ethiopia’s textile sector looking at the export opportunities facing the sector. Given her dual interests in economics and design it would become a logical path for her to forge an entrepreneurial career at the nexus of these two disciplines. Initially Abai had a different set of plans for her venture. She had wanted to gain work experience prior to getting her business started. Business school was also on the cards. As such she pursued internship opportunities following her graduation landing positions at Ashoka and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.  It was during this time that Abai decided to take the plunge and move to Ethiopia and to start building her business.

Credit: Zaaf

ZAAF, which stated with a team of six, has now grown to become a team of over 17 workers who include her artisanal workers and the business team. The company has been intentional about building a strong culture of innovation, quality, and continuous improvement. Abai says ZAAF strives to create a team based and familial environment where people can work to make a difference by creating high quality products which can compete with leading global brands.  

Credit: Zaaf

ZAAF’s work has garnered international recognition even though the company is relatively young. The company’s products have been featured on prestigious platforms such as the New York Fashion Week and in leading publications such as Vogue and Elle. In 2014 Abai also received the UNESCO Tremplin Prize for Entrepreneurship. In 2018, the company achieved yet another milestone by opening a store in Washington DC.