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In the verdant Galilee, an Israeli dental technician-turned-social-entrepreneur has set up a recycling plant that employs special needs adults. And thats only the start of his plan to build a better society

Desmond Bentley
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Not long ago Dani Kogan was the protagonist in an Israeli rags-to-riches story. He moved to Israel in 1990 at age 23 from Ukraine, practically penniless. Within a decade he had become a successful businessman living in a spacious home with his wife and two children.

Dani Kogan with workers at the ECommunity recycling plant he founded in the Galilee Credit: Gili Nehushtan

Then his third child, Yehonatan, was born.

In my imagination he was going to be a blue-eyed pilot and high-tech entrepreneur, or at worst a lawyer, Kogan recalls.

But Yehonatan turned out to be autistic.

Thats when Kogans life took an even more dramatic turn, transforming him from businessman to champion of the developmentally challenged and green pioneer. He likes to call what he does social ecology.

After a year and a half of trying to fix his child by consulting with everyone from doctors to rabbis to healers, Kogan took a different tack. He stopped trying to fix his son and decided – as he puts it – to fix himself – and then, little by little, society.

I realized I have to suppress the pain in my heart and look straight at the child who doesnt look back at me, to love him unconditionally.

I began to imagine how I can be useful to Jonathan and others like him. Intuitively, I knew I needed a platform, and it should be both ecological and social.

In December 2007, Kogan left his lucrative dental supplies business and set up a company in the Galilee that employs people with special needs.

Called Ecology for Protected Community Ltd, the company collects and recycles discarded computers and other electronic devices and was initially located in a rented factory building in Kibbutz Yasur.

I found my workers through hostels and other protected industries. There are several such projects [in Israel] where they work and live – but they are in closed institutions, where there is little interaction with the real world, he says. Kogan wanted something different – a place in the real world that would enable adults with special needs to earn a living, and make a valuable contribution to society.

The economic feasibility of such a business borders on impossible, but my incentive was not economic – it was [helping] people with special needs.

So, he subsidized the project from his own pocket.

I knew that at some point Id have to make it financially sustainable and not some pipe dream. I scoured the country to persuade the big companies that their old electronics are other peoples future. The idea of a social enterprise is difficult to introduce to Israelis – theres no exit or quick buck in this business.

After seven years the company became profitable. Now it recycles thousands of tons of electronic waste from some 3,000 companies around Israel every year and employs 90 people, 80 percent of them physically or mentally disabled. They receive a wage set by the Economy Ministry according to their level of disability.

The workforce includes men and women, Arabs, Jews and Druze; many are on the autistic spectrum, or have Downs Syndrome or other disabilities.

The people working here have no chance of being integrated into a regular company.

Kogans team has been holding workshops throughout Israel to teach special needs people a new profession as a recycler. Its an honorable profession. The company introduced the first recyclers certificate from the Economy Ministry this year. In doing so, we set a precedent - now theres a new professional certification especially for them.

For all the frayed cables, cracked cases and computer entrails, the recycling companys plant in the Misgav region of northern Israel is remarkably clean and orderly. Throughout their shift, the workers carefully dismantle and sift electronic components. The working parts go to the lab, where they are reassembled into fully-functioning devices for resale.  

This is my first job, says Hammed Seraj, a shy, smiling 23-year-old from the Galilee village of Maghar. I was referred by the National Insurance Institute. There are good people here – its like a family. Its good for the people who work here. And now I have a profession.

Zaki Taufish, a 48-year-old father of four from the Druze town of Beit Jann, works in the lab. My problems are psychological, not physical. Here I am treated so well that I forget all my problems. Its more of a therapy than a job, he says with a smile. Here were all family.

Here we all look at each other at face-level. Ive even learned Arabic and join in the conversations. They are like my family, says Zach Mani, 25, from Maalot, who lives in a hostel in Carmiel together with several fellow workers at the plant.

My job is to take the computers apart, select the good parts and take them to the lab. You need to be a perfectionist. Its noisy and you have to remain focused. I like it –  Im happy to come to work every day.

Its not a typical working environment, says Abir Fanas, from the Galilee Bedouin town Tuba-Zangariyye. Its a happy place.

A new branch of the company is called Ecoart, a separate venture that upcycles second-hand products. The first line is already in production – a small team is at work converting computer power supply casings into desk clocks.

Its not a gimmick – this product is built to last, with reliable components and the highest standards, Kogan beams, as he deliberately knocks one off his desk to show its durability. Our employees take pride in the quality of their work.

In 2013, Kogan revamped his original enterprise in order to make it eligible to be a government-certified recycler of electronic waste.  Now called Ecommunity – Social Corporation for the Recycling of Electronic Waste Ltd., the company is indeed one of only two in the country that are authorized to handle some of the 130,000 tons of electronic waste discarded in Israel every year. And its now located in the Misgav industrial zone in the Galilee.

A law passed in Israel in 2014 places responsibility for treating electronic waste and batteries upon manufacturers and importers, who must recycle 15 percent of the electronic equipment and batteries that they sell. The amount will increase incrementally, reaching 50 percent by the year 2021.

That shoud ensure the economic viability of Ecommunity.

But Kogan, the companys founder and CEO, is looking beyond that.  Recycling is not our aim, but a platform for the social enterprise called Ecommunity, he says.

The next stage of this project will be a visitors center.

We plan to take in tens of thousands of visitors and become an educational center for social enterprise, recycling and accepting the other, says Kogan. We want to show how social enterprise can be the next stage of development of Zionism in Israel. 

He has also set up a non-profit organization, which brings schoolchildren for tours, led by a guide who is a person with special needs.

It breaks down their preconceptions, he explains. 

Kogan envisions even more in the future. I want to build an integrated community of 300-500 families to rehabilitate not the special-needs people, but us. It will integrate people without disabilities – a sort-of reverse situation.

The site already exists – an extension of nearby Kibbutz Pelech.  It will have its own concert hall, sports center and other facilities. But what really sets it apart is that it will be what Kogan calls the first community based on social inclusion.