How a Berlin start-up brings African craftsmanship to Europe

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There are 6000 kilometres between the workshop and the customer. But the “Urban Change Lab” conveys fairly produced art to European customers.

Development aid is not necessarily associated with cuff links or drawer inserts for cutlery. But such handmade products from African workshops are offered by a social start-up from Berlin. At least indirectly. Jochen Baumeister’s “Urban Change Lab” brings European customers together with craftsmen and artists in Africa. Digitalisation makes this “Fair Trade 2.0” possible and builds a creative bridge between Africa and Europe.

And this is how it works: customers describe their idea online: “I want a handbag made of leather and fabric, with green applications”. Or: “I want a nice wooden fruit bowl, about 30 cm in diameter”. Everything is possible in the fields of art, fashion and interior design, and what can be made of wood, stone, metal or fabric. It must also be exportable. The Urban Change Lab then checks whether there is a craftsman in Ghana, Kenya or Nigeria who meets the expectations of European customers. The craftsman or artist then makes an offer. “Our goals are a fair payment of the craftsmen with simultaneous attention of the market usual prices locally. The most reliable partner with the highest quality receives the order, not the cheapest”.

The start-up establishes contact between the client and the contractor, who then agree on details such as colour or surface treatment. Thanks to smartphones, which are also widely used in African workshops, 6000 kilometres away are no obstacle. Customers can follow the development process – from material selection to finishing touches – through news, photos or videos. If the client is ultimately satisfied, a final quality check is carried out by local representatives of the Urban Change Lab on site. Baumeister, who is regularly in Kenya himself, then takes care of shipping, customs and payment processing.

Very special cuff links, drawer inserts for cutlery, purses with African patterns and table legs with carved skulls have already been created. All previous projects can be found on the start-up’s website, which is mainly financed by management consulting in the digital sector. Communication processes between customer and craftsman as well as the prices of the individual products are also published. How much money the craftsman receives and how high the shares are for transport, tax and commission is also broken down.

A curtain with an African pattern, for example, cost just under 150 euros. Jochen from Berlin contacted Bella from Kenya, who received almost 90 euros for her work. Marion from Kenya designed a faceted wooden bracelet for Nils from Cologne, for which he paid almost 20 euros. “The first runs showed that everyone involved enjoyed working together and found it to be fair and valuable,” says Baumeister. So far, around 100 projects have been completed. His customers are mostly academically trained and older than 40 years, cosmopolitan and wealthy. “Deceleration takes on a whole new meaning at Urban Change Lab. Those who need a quick shopping kick are certainly wrong with us.” The company wants to do good while earning money fairly and transparently. And at the end of the day, ideally, everyone involved is satisfied.

“With the right idea, you can also become a trendsetter in Africa from Germany,” says Baumeister. John from Starnberg wanted a female African Buddha. Naftal from Kenya carved the 90 cm tall wooden figure for him. The unusual Buddha inspired, so that the craftsman received further orders afterwards.

The graduate engineer Baumeister comes from Berlin and is married to a Kenyan doctor. During his honeymoon in his wife’s home country, he met numerous craftsmen who worked for a limited local demand. Meanwhile, the fairly paid local production contributes to the livelihood of the contractors. And Baumeister could contribute a little to sustainable development with his idea, which he was already able to present at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy.

However, Baumeister does not see the Urban Change Lab as development aid in the classic sense. The craftsmen in his network do not need urgent help, they are all experts in their field and have their own business. Customers should not order because they want to help, but because they want to have an individual, tailor-made product that is created in a fair exchange. “The personal value of a product increases if you can help shape it. We consider this to be the greatest luxury of all,” says

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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