By Zaheda Muntazir, Intern – Gulf News
In 2010, developer Erwan Macé decided to launch a utility app, Muslim Pro, addressing the everyday needs of Muslims. Having lived in South East Asia for a number of years, Macé was fluent in the Indonesian language and decided to cater to Muslims in that country.
“I was pretty convinced, back in 2010, that Indonesia was about to become the future El Dorado of mobile internet,” Macé (pictured above) says in an email interview to GN Focus. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, Macé says smartphone penetration rates, as well as the iPhone app market share, was low at that time. In fact, Muslim Pro initially had fewer than 70 downloads a day.
To his surprise, the app was an instant success in developed countries. “The app enjoyed more than 2,000 daily downloads organically without spending any money on marketing in developed countries home to large Muslim minorities such as France, Germany, the UK and the US,” he says.
In 2011, Macé further expanded Muslim Pro’s reach by releasing an Android version. This led to the app becoming “equally strong” in developing countries, as cheaper Android phones allowed for greater smartphone acquisition in lower GDP countries.
Currently, Muslim Pro’s audience is evenly balanced between Muslim countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and nations with large Muslim minority populations such as France, Germany, the UK and the US, Macé says.
Like Muslim Pro, several Islamic apps have been released in the past five years offering religious information such as prayer times and availability of halal food. However, Muslim Pro is still at the top of the charts. It has been downloaded 30 million times across platforms and, according to Macé, during Ramadan this year it had between three and four million daily active users.
As the global mobile app sector grows, with revenues of $8.3 billion (Dh30.5 billion) last year according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2015-16, the share of the Islamic app market is also increasing.
“The digital space is a promising industry with a 1.7 billion-Muslim population growing at twice the rate of the global population,” says Abdullah Mohammad Al Awar (pictured), CEO of Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre, in an email to GN Focus.
Another app that is gaining popularity in the Muslim world is Islam by Sivvr, which includes features such as prayer time prompts, prayer direction, and information about halal eateries.
“We created the app because we felt one of the largest communities in the world was being neglected by technology,” says AJ Joshi (pictured), the app’s developer and a London-based entrepreneur, in an email interview to GN Focus. “Our goal is to help spread the positivity of Islam and help enhance the practices.”
The aim of HalalTrip’s developers was to help Muslims meet their “unique requirements while travelling”. Along with basic information such as qiblah, prayer times, mosques, food and attractions, the app includes an in-flight prayer calculator, downloadable Muslim visitor guides, and a HalalTrip Pass that differentiate it from its competitors.
HalalTrip Pass is the first travel pass created solely for Muslim travellers, explains Raudha Zaini, Head of Digital Marketing of HalalTrip in an email to GN Focus. HalalTrip has a total of half a million visitors across its app and social media pages.
And the market is only growing, according to Zaini who cites Pew Research. “In 2015, there were 117 million Muslim travellers and this number is expected to grow to 168 million by 2020,” she says. Additionally, according to Pew Research, Muslims have the youngest median age of all major religious groups, at 23, which is seven years younger than the median age of non-Muslims. This makes them an attractive target for developers and advertisers.
Developers in the UAE have also contributed to the growth of the industry, with apps such as Salam. Created by Ali Dabaja, Founder and CEO of Hajjnet, Salam offers a step-by-step guide to hajj and umrah. “A particularly interesting feature of Salam is the Social Du’a, which allows Muslims and non-Muslims alike to connect with pilgrims during their spiritual journey,” says Dabaja in an email to GN Focus. “Friends and family can submit du’a (supplications) requests to pilgrims who can supplicate on their behalf at the holy sites.” Another unique feature is a Tawaf Counter, which helps pilgrims keep track of the times they have circulated the Ka’aba, as they are required to do so seven times. The app also includes information about any disease outbreaks during haj season, a Quran reader, and a planner to finish reading Quran by their deadlines.
Salam was downloaded more than 750,000 times by users in 150 countries, says Dabaja.
“We are happy to see young Muslims across the world and in the GCC eager to promote Islamic values and characteristics through apps,” say Al Awar. “To their credit, we have witnessed a number of innovative businesses taking shape in this sector – from Arabic edutainment apps to Ramadan apps to various lifestyle apps that cater to the daily needs of Muslims.”
As the industry thrives, so does stiff competition. “Things have changed a bit over the years as Islamic mobile apps have become much more competitive with other quality apps being developed by professional teams,” says Macé. “We have to work hard and continuously innovate to secure our leadership by releasing frequent updates and new features.”
Agung Pambudi (pictured), an Indonesian Muslim living in Japan, found it a constant struggle to find halal food in Japan, which inspired him to create HalalMinds. The app allows users to scan barcodes of goods from its database of nearly 500,000 products, translates ingredients into English, and tells whether the product has haram, or forbidden, ingredients or not. It also helps users find Muslim-friendly hotels and halal restaurants, shows qiblah, and includes a Quran database in 14 languages.
Unlike the other apps, HalalMinds has a limited audience, as it is targeted at Muslim travellers visiting Japan. This may soon change as the Japanese government has set a target of one million Muslim visitors to the country by 2020, when the Olympic Games takes place in Tokyo.
Within the next two months Pambudi wants to expand the app to China, which has a large Muslim population and then to South Korea.
As he is personally funding most of the app, growth has been restrained. “We need an angel investor to develop better,” he says.
Despite the growth of the Islamic economy and specifically the Islamic app market, Al Awar stresses the need to help those in underdeveloped countries connect to the rest of the world. “Even as we surge ahead in the digital space, there is an urgent need for us to be digitally responsible and think of the underprivileged,” Al Awar says. “This is because a large proportion of people still do not have access to technology.”
According to the United Nations more than half of the world’s population, about four billion people, do not have regular access to the internet. About 90 per cent of the population of the world’s poorest countries are offline. “Islamic economy has a mission to ensure social and economic development on the basis of equality and justice through investments and projects that would involve all sections of society to engage in the development process,” Al Awar says.