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Airaga family meets the e-scrap challenge in South Africa

Costa and Desiree Airaga set up Desco Electronics Recycling in 1992 and it has grown into one of the biggest recycling companies in South Africa. Located in Gauteng province, just outside Johannesburg, the business is now run with their three sons. The youngest, Giulio (26), takes care of marketing and is ‘pretty much the voice of Desco’.

Being an e-scrap recycler in South Africa is no easy feat, Giulio concedes immediately. ‘Our line of business is quite challenging because illegal processing is still happening on a large scale. We take pride in doing everything by the book, following strict guidelines and getting as many certificates as we can. A lot of time and money goes into that. But not all competitors are doing it; most just want to save money so they cut corners. And then people ask us why we are “so expensive”,’ he explains. Even large corporations and government-run organisations have the habit of specifying ‘price before certification’ on their documents.

‘But if you do things right, you’re not going to give massive discounts, are you?’ Airaga reasons. He describes the culture of his family business as ‘professional, ambitious and transparent’.

More than anything, Desco wants to recycle electronics properly and responsibly. ‘That is the foundation my father built our company on and we want to keep that legacy intact. I mean, our reputation is at stake,’ Airaga insists.

‘The fact that we live on the premises helps convince new customers we take health and safety measures very seriously,’ he adds. ‘After all, I have been drinking the borehole water and breathing the air for 25 years and I’ve never had any health concerns.’

The yellow pages

Desco currently handles about 3 500 tonnes per year, down from 5 000 tonnes due to intense competition. With more large recyclers joining the game, South Africa’s recyclers compete in an intense price war. Other parties may offer just a couple Rand more to secure the material. ‘We don’t let it get to us too much. We still have plenty to do; we’ve been growing steadily for years. I have to say, the business today is nothing like it was when my father started it in the 90s,’ Airaga says with a laugh.

Father Costa, once a technician and tradesman, started with one truck and a phone book. In the early days, he flipped through the yellow pages trying to get hold of anyone who was getting rid of end-of-life electronics. After a while, he had his own network and had set up a small office. ‘My mom helped him with administration and accounting tasks – she still does from time to time. Desco kind of snowballed from there,’ Airaga recalls.

Ready for backup

‘My two older brothers, Luigi (33) and Enrico (31), and I grew up on our current site, although it’s been expanded several times. Being around e-scrap every day meant we learned the essentials of e-cycling when we were young kids; how electronics are made, how to sort components, how shredders work, what data destruction entails etc. I remember earning pocket money doing small chores for my father, mostly in the office or helping to unload a collection truck.’

‘I never specifically wanted to go into the recycling industry full-time. My brothers and I enjoyed the business when we were young. The transition into the business just happened,’ Airaga says. ‘We followed what we wanted to study and just applied it internally. We never actively sought employment elsewhere because as the company grew and entered into a new chapter it became exciting for us.’

‘My father fulfilled most company roles for as long as he could because he was so passionate about Desco and he knew everyone from day one. It became clear to my brothers and me that he really could use some backup. So we’ve taken on the activities that suit us best. For me, that’s building our brand and future vision, for my brothers that is R&D and managing the plant.’

And he adds: ‘My father’s still involved and has a big role to play. He’s slowly handing over the business, but couldn’t be more excited to push through.’

Like father, like son?

For Airaga, the role mostly means writing content for the website and doing interviews with local radio stations, TV programmes, magazines and newspapers. As a 20-something fresh out of college, he says he has his own ideas about how to market our business to the public. ‘Especially when it comes to boosting our online presence,’ he says.

‘I hired a professional photographer last week to do a photo-shoot at our facility. I want to showcase Desco as a modern company, with new photos, videos and blogs uploaded to our website and social media regularly. That’s the way to stay relevant, I think.’

Giulio (right) with his father Costa and older brothers.

When comparing himself to his father and brothers, he admits there are similarities. ‘We take after my father, who is a traditional businessman; very practical and hands-on. Luigi is most like my father: very outspoken, direct and charismatic. This makes him brilliant at making business deals. Meanwhile, Enrico, who is a trained process engineer, is very quiet and studious. He’s all about the latest technology trends and fine-tuning our equipment. I’m somewhere in the middle.’

Airaga recognises that not everyone can work with family members. ‘All some people do is argue. The good thing is, you know you can trust each other. As recyclers and scrap yards in South Africa will confirm, it’s very easy to steal or under-declare things. We’ve never had incidents like that at Desco because we’re such a close team.’

New ceiling

Of course, there are differences in character and expectations. ‘I think the older generation tends to keep things the way they are, whereas sons and daughters want to shake things up – try new things, launch new projects. My father had pretty much shelved an idea to expand into other countries before my brothers and I brought it up again,’ Airaga says. ‘It makes sense. It takes so much energy and focus to realise expansions; I think those attributes come naturally to someone looking at the industry with a fresh pair of eyes.’

He becomes quiet for a moment, lost in thought. ‘My father has this saying. Since we were young, he told us: “My ceiling is your floor”. His reasoning is, I’ve brought you to this level, now you’ve got to take it from here, to reach new heights. In that respect, he is very open-minded.’

Airaga emphasises he is very grateful that the family trusts him to develop a plan to scale up the business in other parts of the country and, hopefully not too far ahead, in neighbouring countries. ‘As a first step, I want to set up a branch in Cape Town.’

Questioned about his own future and passing Desco onto the next generation catches him a little off-guard. ‘I’m too young to have thought about having kids myself,’ he laughs. ‘But, yeah, someday. It would be nice to keep the business we’ve worked so hard for in the hands of the family.’

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