Urban Change Lab is a web platform that brings together artisans and creative people, who want to realize their ideas. The creator, Jochen Baumeister, is particularly interested in high-quality work, the appreciation of craftsmanship and fair payment. In an interview with Christiane Manow-Le Ruyet from InnovationOrigins, he explains how this works and why technology plays an important role.
What is Urban Change Lab About?
With us, customers can implement their creative ideas together with craftsmen. In this way, projects can be realized that they might otherwise never have tackled. So, they don’t go to the store and buy any product, but create their own, which is made according to their ideas.
How does that Work Exactly?
If you have an idea, describe it on our portal, maybe add a photo or a sketch of how you imagine your product. Then we’ll see which craftsmen would be suitable to implement your idea. We make an enquiry and the one who has free capacity, works to a high standard of quality and is reliable wins the contract. The point is not to undercut the price. We want the craftsmen to be paid accordingly for their work. Transparency is particularly important to us here. This is why we disclose the calculation on our website, so that it is clear to all those involved, who earns how much and how the costs are made up.
Who Implements the Ideas of the Customers?
We work with craftsmen from Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda. They are experts in their fields, many still master old craftsmanship. Handicrafts are thus, so to say, like a Rolls Royce among products.
What Happens when the Order is Placed?
Customers and craftsmen can communicate with each other via our platform in order to discuss details for the implementation of the idea. To ensure that there are no language barriers, however, we have linked our platform with the DeepL translation platform. This means that the customer submits his request in German, the software translates it into English. The reverse works as well. The craftsman answers in English and the software translates to German.
Doesn’t Scatter Loss Happen, When the Software Translates Something Wrong?
Usually not, because the program can also handle not entirely perfect sentences and translate them correctly.
Jochen Baumeister has founded Urban Change Lab in 2015 ©Urban Change Lab
How did you Come Up with the Idea to Develop Urban Change Lab?
I myself am often in Kenya for family reasons. I like to buy locally from craftsmen. I noticed that the products offered are similar. I wanted something individual and practical. When I asked for a sugar bowl, a craftsman offered to make it for me as a unique piece. It took three iterations until the product turned out, as I imagined it to be. When I was at home with my sugar bowl, I realized how much I appreciated it because of the history of its production. It occurred to me to implement this principle of production and the associated appreciation online. That’s how the idea for Urban Change Lab was born.
How Long Have You Been Active at the Market?
The idea was born in 2015, one year later we started. Since then we have implemented 100 projects. In addition, we also advise other companies on online services and digitization.
How Many Employees do you Currently Employ?
As a company, we have a very lean structure, we bootstrap, so we forego external capital. Our platform is designed in such a way that we have automated most of the processes. We try to find a technical answer to all questions and make the platform as easy to use as possible. This way, we don’t need a big organization. Instead, we work with partners on an independent basis on site or in Germany who act entrepreneurially and are responsible for areas such as local operations or social media. It is particularly important to us to create transparent work processes and to ensure that freedom and entrepreneurship go hand in hand, that all those involved receive fair remuneration and that they themselves build a stable company.
How does the Payment of the Ordered Products work?
As soon as an order is placed, the customer pays in advance. We manage the paid amount and pay it to the craftsman according to progress, e.g. 25% when the order is placed, so that the craftsman can buy the material and start production. In addition, he must give a time-estimate of how much resources are available to him. Because normally our trade partners work on several orders at the same time.
You spoke of Transparency. How is the Price Composed? And are the Manufactured Products very Expensive?
Let’s take the example of a cutlery tray for a drawer. Depending on the wood finish, you can expect a price of between 70 and 80 euros – for a handcrafted product made to your specifications. At Ikea you can get the cutlery tray cheaper, of course, but it is a mass-produced item that may not fit exactly into your drawer. Customers who are very price-sensitive may not find what they are looking for on our platform. For others who value individuality, sustainability and craftsmanship, it is definitely the right choice.
How is the Price Calculated?
The price is made up of the work involved, material costs as well as ten percent customer acquisition costs, 10 percent handling, as well as the costs for delivery and VAT. On our website we publish the calculation of each individual project.
What are the Difficulties Your Company is Facing?
The biggest challenge is the transport from Africa to Germany. After the quality control of the goods, they are handed over to a local agent, who organizes the transport to Germany. Since we do not yet ship large quantities, it is difficult to find a suitable logistician. The Sub-Saharan region in particular is poorly connected to the international logistics network. I find it shameful that in the 30 years that Europeans have been active there as development aid workers, they have not yet succeeded in establishing affordable logistics there. This is massively hindering the growth of online platforms in this region.
Your Trade Partners Must Also Feel This?
Yes, there are still too many barriers here for effective online trading and expansion into other countries. Here, too, we try to work transparently and sustainably by presenting our trade partners and their work on our website. It is important for us to communicate at eye level and to present our actions in an understandable and comprehensible way.
What will Happen with Urban Change Lab in the Future?
We will definitely try to improve the logistics successively. We are doing quite well, but there is still a lot to do. It is also important to become better known, so that many more people can implement their creative ideas and we can further intensify trade relations between Africa and the rest of the world.