(CNN) With the headquarters of the African Union located in Ethiopia’s capital city, as well as an award-winning airline and a rapidly-growing economy, Addis Ababa is increasingly recognized as a political and economic hub in Africa.
Now, with its rich cultural and artistic heritage, a new generation of Ethiopians are trying to put Addis on the world’s retail map.
Abai Schulze is one of these entrepreneurs. Her brand, ZAAF, sells a delectable range of handmade leather handbags and accessories. With an online store and stockists in Europe and the US, it’s hard to believe that the business was started just over two years ago, or that Schulze — who is 27– grew up in an orphanage.
Born in remote Gishen in northeastern Ethiopia, Schulze’s life took a very different turn when she was adopted by an American family at age 11. That hard start would give her the desire to make change happen in her native Ethiopia. “I grew up in Texas but always had the desire to come back and start a business,” Schulze says. “I knew I wanted to be in the creative space and create jobs in Ethiopia so Zaaf was a combination of passion and opportunity.”
Today, ZAAF which means tree in Amharic, employs 17 people — 10 of which are artisans — but the team often swells to many times its size. “We outsource when we have large orders,” Schulze explains.
Schulze and I meet at her workshop and recently-opened boutique in Addis. She has agreed to show me round her business but also to introduce me to other makers and entrepreneurs who are bucking the trend to simply export to mature markets in the West, chosing instead to also develop the market for their goods at home by opening retail spaces. With many jobs still being created in the informal economy Schulze also takes me to Addis Ababa’s largest garment market, Shiro Meda.
First we head to Snap Plaza, a new shopping centre on Bole road (an affluent part of town), to check out baby brand Little Gabies, and meet its founder Amelsa Yazew.
The gabi is the traditional handwoven Ethiopian blanket, and Yazew had the idea to start making a version for babies when she returned to Addis from New York and couldn’t find a suitable baby blanket.
“Admittedly, as a new mom, I was overprotective and excited and on a mission to find a soft, cozy, natural and unique blanket I could rely on,” Yazew says.
After checking out what was already available on the market, Yazew decided to start her business when her baby Caleb was only three-months-old. The mompreneur, who still holds down a full-time job, launched in New York in 2014 and now creates jobs for 22 people. As well as the blankets (in cotton and a limited-edition cashmere), Little Gabies also sells baby shoes, headbands, nursing covers and beachwear.
Next Schulze and I head to Shiro Meda, where hundreds of vendors line the busy Entoto road and sell netela and habesha kemis — traditional shawls and dresses from central and northern Ethiopia, most often made from shemma, a cotton cloth which is handwoven in long strips and sewn together, with a decorative border.
“Most Ethiopians will come here for their traditional wear,” says Schulze. “The designs are beautiful but it’s not always the best craftsmanship so look closely before you buy.”
To get the most from Shiro Meda, Schulze advices that shoppers compare prices before buying. It also helps to go with a local. Prices will differ depending on how complex the embroidery is, the quality of the cotton and the weaving — the best cloth is tightly woven. As well as clothing, traders at Shiro Meda also sell arts and crafts, souvenirs, t-shirts and accessories.
As we leave Shiro Meda — with five scarves in hand — I agree to check out Anbar Marketplace at the weekend where Schulze will be selling her bags, alongside dozens of other businesses catering to the growing middle class market, made up in large part of expats and Ethiopians returning from the diaspora.
For this upmarket event that takes place on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Golf Club, I switch guides and I’m accompanied by an artist, writer and educator, Amira Ali.
From the moment we arrive Ali, who splits her time between her east African homeland and the west coast of the US, seems to know everybody. A lot of traders and consumers like Ali were members of the Ethiopian diaspora, predominantly in the States, who have returned to be part of their nation’s success story. With more disposable income, these middle class Ethiopians were on the lookout for somewhere to meet and shop and Anbar Marketplace filled the gap. It also provides a service for the creative community — helping to connect them with consumers.
“Addis needed an outdoor event space with great food and music,” says Abeba Nerayo, one of the founders of Anbar. Nerayo launched Anbar in 2014 with three other friends and now have 80 vendors attend the bi-annual event. “A lot of young artists who cannot afford shops but were making amazing stuff at home sell at Anbar,” Nerayo adds.
After paying the 50birr (little more than $2) entrance fee, shoppers can explore the white marquees. They house dressed trestle tables displaying a range of goods, from art, pottery, baskets, jewelry and candles, to fresh fruits, vegetables, Ethiopian wine and desserts made with teff, a super grain native to Ethiopia. There are also hot food stalls, notably the barbecue stand serving tibs and injera (sautéed seasoned beef strips and a spongy sourdough flatbread), conveniently located next to a delicious honey wine stand. The live band playing Ethiojazz hits rounds off the party atmosphere. This is retail therapy at its best.