ZAAF CEO on Creating a Luxury Brand and Changing the Perception of Africa

ZAAF is a luxury leather goods brand that manufactures its products in Ethiopia. As an African, I love seeing us take our natural resources and create world class brands that can compete with the usual household names that we’ve been trained to desire.

I wanted to know more about this brand and the brain behind it, so I had a chat with ZAAF founder and CEO, Abai Schulze.

What inspired you to start ZAAF?

It all came down to a convergence of both opportunity and passion. 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 an economics major at George Washington University.

We are all familiar with the stereotypes that exist about African countries. How important is it to you to change these perceptions with your work?

We promote Ethiopia’s, as well as the entire continent’s rich heritage and cultures through exacting top quality products made with indigenous natural resources by our gifted artisans.

Each piece draws its inspiration from a particular region, and is crafted with the finest materials.

Color, texture, and ageless patterns made on a traditional loom, are merged with carefully selected leather to create a discrete statement of elegance and practicality.

I believe our effort at ZAAF accentuates an angle that speaks to the legitimacy of art, the taste of truthful luxury and the beauty of an earnest human endeavor all built around the hope of a nation.


Positioning a luxury brand synonymous with Ethiopia in the global marketplace is an effective way of displacing negative stereotypes about the country.

Ethiopia has one of the leading manufacturing industries in Africa. What do you feel needs to be done in order for the country to capitalize on this?

Yes – Ethiopia is on track to become Africa’s industrial powerhouse, but there are some challenges that need to be addressed in order for the country to really capitalize on its resources.


One issue in particular I want to highlight is that we must develop our labor force’s skills so individuals can become more productive and truly understand quality control.

It is equally vital that companies pay a sustainable wag as the high turnover indicates this has yet to be achieved.


What is the most fulfilling and most challenging aspect of the work you do?

My driving passion and vision for many years were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth.

We are trying to be a part of the solution by making skills and capacity building integral to our operating model. I believe we are having an incremental but certainly positive impact on the job sector.

I also hope we are having a “knock on” effect and inspiring other young entrepreneurs and designers to enter the space and invest in people.

Of course there are difficulties around infrastructure, red tape and elements like logistics – those go without saying. These challenges should be “priced into” any decision to open and operate in any frontier market.

I think a particular challenge, which is also a wonderful opportunity, for my sector is the need to invest continually in human capital.

I’m highly reliant on qualified and specifically skilled labor who can build unique hard and soft skills. Filtering through, selecting and further investing into this human capital is probably my most unique challenge.

How important is it to you to invest in your community and in what ways are you doing that or planning to do that in the future?

I strongly believe that education and job creation play a critical role to provide economic opportunities in any emerging economy.

So at ZAAF, we support educational programs by inviting students to our workshop, inspiring them with our work, or sponsoring programs that support our vision in these issues.

We believe that financial success and mission impact go hand in hand. We must succeed as a business and achieve financial success in order to create a deeper development impact, build local capacity, and generate sustainable markets.

The success of our company rests upon our ability to create new linkages between emerging market producers and discerning developed market customers and to generate profit, growth, and revenue in the markets for our artisans.

Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years

We will continue to expand our production in line with our growth goals, while also expanding the range of products we offer. We also aim to grow partnerships and distribution channels.

We will be a globally recognized high-end brand that gives discerning consumers new and exciting choices, and in many cases a whole new perception of Ethiopia and the African continent.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Quantify your risks. Build up an appropriate tolerance for risk and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.

I would also advise entrepreneurs to double-down on execution. I’ve always said –  execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.


-Tony O. Lawson

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