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The New Stars Of The Islamic Economy: Salam App Is The Companion You Need on Hajj & Umrah

 

This is part of the series: The New Stars Of The Islamic Economy, featured in the June/July 2017 issue of Inc. Arabia Magazine. Muslims account for one out of every four people on the planet right now and are also one of fastest-growing consumer segments in the world. By all accounts, they are also one of the most under-served when it comes to products and services that appeal to their values and heritage. Here are four MENA startups that are using technology, innovation, design, finance and more to break up that norm.

Ali Dabaja is clear about this. A real entrepreneur should be solving problems of the world he inhabits.

The problem he is solving? Overcoming the multiple challenges Muslims face every year in performing the Hajj and Umrah, pilgrimages to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

He points to the various issues—the 80 km journey, most of it on foot; lack of access to information about the hundreds of rituals; and the logistics puzzle—all further complicated by cultural and language differences.

Hajj or Umrah can be very daunting. You can easily feel like you don’t know anything and do not deserve to be there.”

No company, says the former banker, has solved this $30 billion industry’s problems.

“We are a technology company,” says Dabaja of Salam Technologies, previously known as Hajjnet FZE, a Dubai-based tech startup of which he is the founder and CEO. “This is a problem that affects a quarter of the world’s population…we have taken a startup approach to use mobile tech to tap this business opportunity.”

That approach resulted in two apps, one each for Hajj and Umrah, after a chance meeting with an Islamic scholar, who had performed Haj about 25 times, and who provided the domain knowledge for these free apps, which went live in 2014.

Dabaja says that they started with one app each on the assumption that people are going to use them for specific needs. However, with continuous feedback from their early users, Dabaja’s team found that users were looking at the apps to go beyond and also wanted features to meet their daily needs.

For example, some asked for a Quran reader, others for a way to get prayer directions, and some wanted social integration.

Slowly, the idea of turning their apps into one platform dawned on the team, out of which Salam, their current app was born. Available in eight languages, the app has been downloaded over 760,000 times.

“I have said this a thousand times that if Hajj and Umrah had to be performed in the US, there would be five companies like ours, and three of them would be public.”

According to the Lebanese-American, the app is no longer a “seasonal” product. “We are seeing over a million events a month, with the in-season number being far higher.”

Having raised $1.25 million from family and friends, he says that they have leveraged that user growth into revenue.

Dabaja has used advertisers to monetize the app, integrating brands like Dettol, Vaseline, and Jaeger-LeCoultre onto it.

In the next phase of growth, Dabaja is working on “white labeling,” where Hajj and Umrah  operators can manage the typically large groups they take on the pilgrimages using the Salam app. He reveals that they have already beta-tested this service with a UK-based operator and its group of 300.

Also in the works is a website version of Salam, a “smart learning platform.”

All of this is coinciding with the startup’s next step, which includes a relocation and a fresh fund infusion in the coming weeks.

According to Dabaja, his investors are onboard in understanding the opportunity.

“The biggest concert can see 50,000 people at best,” he explains. “The biggest single day record for Hajj is 3.5 million [in 2012].”

This number will grow, as Saudi Arabia lifts quotas to attract 45 million visitors by 2020. “I have said this a thousand times that if Hajj and Umrah had to be performed in the US, there would be five companies like ours, and three of them would be public.”

Photos: Anna Nielsen

 

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