In one of Addis Ababa’s workshops, Abai Schulze and her 17 employees work hard on readying their handcrafted leather products that will soon be shipped overseas.
Made from high quality Ethiopian leather and hand-loomed textile accents, the luxury handbags and accessories produced by these artisans are getting a growing demand in US and European luxury markets.
The 25 year-old entrepreneur, who moved to Ethiopia from the US two years ago, says she’s fulfilling a long held dream.
“Even though I lived in the US since I was a child, I had the opportunity to come and visit Ethiopia occasionally,” she told GIZEYAT. “I had a dream of returning home to invest my skills.”
Adopted at age eleven by an American family, Schulze grew up in Texas where she developed her passion for the fine arts and fashion.
After completing her studies at Georgetown University in Economics, she decided to return to Ethiopia and start a business in hopes of contributing her part to her homeland.
She draws inspiration for her works from Ethiopia’s traditional cloth designs, blending time-honored embellishments with her artistry.
Today, her high-end products are promoting Ethiopia with their “Made in Ethiopia” tags and the brand name ZAAF, the Amharic word for “tree”.
At present the products are mainly headed for US and Europe, but Schulze says she plans to reach more markets.
“We are planning to expand our product categories and reach more countries. We want to see the brand grow and be a leading luxury name.”
“While well known European luxury brands will always have their place, there is definitely a pent up demand for creative high-end products that combine contemporary design with unique cultural roots. We live in a global culture, and the fashion world across the African continent is growing exponentially and is populated with absolutely terrific designers,” she said.
Schulze received the 2014 Young Leadership Award from the Save A Child’s Heart Organization and the 2014 UNESCO Tremplin Prize for The Social Entrepreneurship in recognition of her efforts in changing the lives of Ethiopians through her enterprise.
In her two years endeavor, Schulze finds power cuts, bureaucracy, and foreign currency management to be challenging to navigate; yet, she is confident and optimistic about the business opportunities Ethiopia is offering her.
“There is an abundant supply of raw materials here in Ethiopia. The labor cost is also very reasonable. This industry is able to create jobs and build capacity – two key goals that are near to my heart,” she said. “On top of that, this is a new and growing market which is only limited by how deeply one is committed to work hard and follow one’s dreams.”
The luxury designer, who debuted her first collection in Washington D.C. in early 2014, says this is the right time for others from the diaspora community to return home and explore Ethiopia’s entrepreneurial opportunities.