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.
The story of Zileej is the story of its two co-founders. Ansarullah Ridwan Mohammed, was in the middle of a five-year ‘acturial’ stint with the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah when the entrepreneurial itch came to him.
“I had this idea of creating a company that will make high-quality, innovative, products for the Islamic community, ” he says. The first concept out that period of ideation, in 2011, was 5Pillars, an educational board game based on the five pillars of Islam.
There was only one hitch. Mohammed did not know much about designing games.
A few time zones and 18 hours of flight time away in Sydney, Peter Gould, a designer, was now in the midst of realizing his dream. An Australian convert to Islam at the end of what he says was a deeply spiritual journey, Gould was finally moving away from the “soda and shoe kind of advertising work.”
Influenced by his travels to countries like Morocco, Turkey, and Syria, Gould was now actively looking to “work with startups and individuals who were keen on faith-inspired design and products like he was.”
And then, as it happens with most such startup stories, a common friend introduced the two. The connection blossomed into a partnership between
Mohammed and Gould’s agency to develop 5Pillars and take it to the market.
When it did hit the market, 5Pillars was a hit. Over 100,000 copies of the game, in its two variations and three languages, have been sold in more than 30 countries.
The partnership was restricted to just the board game in the initial years. Slowly, says Mohammed, as they got to know each other, not to mention the success of 5Pillars, they saw the sense in teaming up.
Finally, at the 2015 Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai, Gould and Mohammed came together to form the earliest avatar of Zileej to create innovative lifestyle products for Muslims.
“There is an entire generation of Muslims working, living, and playing on their mobile phones, and we want to tap into that.”
Zileej, incidentally, is the traditional name for geometric tilework found in classic Islamic art and architecture on buildings.
By 2016, Zileej, bank-rolled by an unnamed investor, was set up in Dubai, and Gould’s agency began its transition into the fold to make, as he describes them, “products that appeal to the aspirations of Muslim families” beyond the traditional Islamic economy sectors of food and finance.
The duo describe their work as that of product developers, who “listen to the needs and wants of Muslims” and then work with partners to come up with products that best meet those demands.
“For Muslim parents, while there is Disney and Pixar, there are not a lot of choices when it comes to their values and heritage,” Gould says, explaining the idea behind their next product, the Salaam Sisters.
A Muslim-girl focused brand, Salaam Sisters’ core product is going to be a set of 18-inch dolls meant for play and learning. “It was important for us that our second product positions us as a lifestyle brand,” says Mohammed.
The third brand, SmartMuslim, is playing on wearable tech trend, and is expected to hit the market by the last quarter of 2017. “We want to quantify the daily spiritual habits of Muslims [with Smart Muslim],” says Gould, “and see if we can marry that with their health and mindfulness goals.”
Also expected to be out in the market this Ramadan is an app based on their best-selling 5Pillars board game.
“There is an entire generation of Muslims working, living, and playing on their mobile phones, and we want to tap into that. We want to bring some fun and interactivity into learning. That is what Zileej is all about.”