Meet Abai Schulze: Owner of Zaaf Collection, a Luxury Handbag Brand Made in Ethiopia

Abai Schulze is the founder of Ethiopian handbag brand Zaaf Collection. (Courtesy Photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Saturday, January 9th, 2016

New York (TADIAS) — Long before she launched Zaaf Collection, a luxury handbag business headquartered in Ethiopia, Abai Schulze spent her earliest years in Wollo Province and then in Addis before entering an orphanage at around age four and moving to America seven years later. “It had naturally shaped me in a dynamic way,” Abai recalls of her childhood in Addis. “Being adopted at a later age meant that I had a certain amount of attachment to Ethiopia.”

In addition, her adoptive family encouraged her to keep up with her written and spoken Amharic. “I became part of a large and loving family, and benefitted from excellent education and many opportunities to experience travel near and far,” she shares. That included earning a degree in Economics from George Washington University and returning back to Ethiopia on a number of occasions. “Across my secondary school and college years, my driving passion and vision were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth,” Abai told Tadias. At the same time Abai also pursued training in fine arts and design. “So it all came down to a convergence of both opportunity and passion,” she adds. “I understood the value of my education, and I was determined to leverage the potential and trends of my home country. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions of “physical creation” had always been a driver for me, even as I spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics.”

The name for her luxury handbag business, Zaaf, is the Amharic word for tree. “At the same time it is a simple word with symbolic meaning across all cultures,” Abai said. “I was inspired by the notion of deep roots reaching into abundantly rich Ethiopian culture and heritage, while bring out beautiful new branches of creativity and functionality, it is a theme that works well — most of our products are named after Ethiopian trees.”

Zaaf Collection started out with a small team of six, and has now grown to seventeen including artisans and administrative staff. “Our artisans work hard and we are always focused on quality control and continuous improvement in all we do,” Abai emphasizes. “We all take great pride in our work, and we operate as a team. I make sure we engage in times of team building that bring encouragement and motivation to all of us, and underscores the sense of purpose and excitement we have in bringing forth this vision and these beautiful products. Our team will continue to grow in number, along with skills and capacity.”

ZAAF workshop in Addis Ababa. (Courtesy photo)

The leather and hand-woven textiles that ZAAF uses to make its bags are all sourced from Ethiopia and produced by local artisans. “Real economic development is about producing top quality products using unique cultural, natural, and human resources that can find a place at the highest levels in the global marketplace,” Abai explained. “So the vision is really very big — it is about setting standards of excellence and innovation; it is about demonstrating and affirming that we can be a top fashion brand competing with the biggest names in the world in terms of both creative design and quality.”

Asked about her plans for expansion and where she sees her brand in 10 years time, Abai says “Ethiopia is the birthplace of ZAAF, and will serve as the foundation of a luxury lifestyle brand as we expand out to draw on the rich heritage and culture that can be found across the continent. In ten years we want to be a widely recognized and sought after brand that equates “Made in Africa” with brilliance in craftsmanship, artistry, and deep cultural roots.”

Model with Zaaf Collection handbag. (Courtesy photo)

Zaaf Collection, which launched two years ago, has already been showcased at New York Fashion Week and featured in Vogue, Elle and Lucky magazines. Last month Abai — who is the recipient of the UNESCO Tremplin 2014 Prize for Entrepreneurship and one of the finalists for the 2015 Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship — was a speaker at the UNESCO conference in Paris themed “Emergence in Africa.”

“We are off to a good start,” Abai says. “I look forward to rewarding and exciting things ahead.”

You can learn more about Abai Schulze’s work at

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