Islamic Finance 

Muslim Pro buy-out is tip of the iceberg for investment in digital Islamic economy

| 06 August, 2017 | General
 Leighton Cosseboom
Muslim Pro buy-out is tip of the iceberg for investment in digital Islamic economy

The parent company of the Islamic economy’s most downloaded mobile app went from bootstrapping and organic growth to getting snapped up by heavy-hitting private equity players. There’s promise of more to come as the company is planning to expand into new verticals including halal food, haj-related services, and e-commerce.   

By now you’ve probably heard about the acquisition of Muslim Pro, the most downloaded Islamic app to date. Details of the deal are undisclosed but it is reportedly an eight-digit buy-out of between 85 and 95 percent of Muslim Pro’s parent company Bitsmedia, a Singapore-based business specializing in mobile app development and “early-stage angel investments.” It has also built mobile apps for Universal Music, Singapore Telecom, and Ogilvy, to name a few.

The buy-out of the bootstrapped start-up is likely one of the larger exits to date for an Islam-focused technology company – a possible sign that digital businesses operating in the global Islamic economy are becoming more mature. Alternatively, the deal may also be seen as a prelude to heavy-hitting investors taking a more serious look at the market potential of the digital Islamic economy.  

The buyers were Singapore-based CMIA Capital Partners and Malaysia-based Affin Hwang Asset Management. Bitsmedia’s founder Erwan Macé claims that prior to acquisition, the company was fully self-funded since 2009, meaning it simply propelled the operation with revenue since its inception.

Muslim Pro – Bitsmedia’s flagship product – offers a host of features to help Muslims practise their faith. It shows prayer times regardless of where the user is in the world, features an in-app Quran, and offers suggestions for halal restaurants and mosques located nearby. While having a global footprint (and showing content in 15 languages including Arabic, English, and Mandarin), Muslim Pro clocks in among the top 10 mobile lifestyle apps in Indonesia and Malaysia.  

INTERVIEW PT 1 WITH ERWAN MACE: ABOUT ERWAN MACE AND BITSMEDIA (2015)

Interview published Ocotber 1, 2015. See here for transcript

PRIVATE EQUITY IMPLICATIONS

With the information available, we can determine that ex-Googler Macé and his team of six at Bitsmedia were able to create a valuation of more than $10 million without any help from venture capitalists. This is by no means the most impressive thing ever done in the consumer tech game, but for a company whose flagship product is for the global Muslim population, it is a big deal.

Private equity investors typically do not get involved in start-up deals until companies reach a certain level of promise and stability, and also show what the investors believe is empirical potential for winning a multibillion-dollar market. In other words, they like large and proven market opportunities, write big checks and have lower risk tolerances than early stage investors. For tech companies like Bitsmedia, private equity usually only joins the fold after multiple rounds of smaller and relatively high-risk VC investments.

“Prior to CMIA and Affin Hwang’s investment, there had been no external funding,” Macé told Salaam Gateway in an interview. “The company remained completely bootstrapped and we managed to grow Muslim Pro to 45 million downloads and 2 million daily active users over the past seven years.” As an indication of its growth, Macé told Salaam Gateway in 2015 that the app hit the 21 million download mark in Ramadan of the same year. Currently, Muslim Pro claims to have 10 million monthly active users.

Macé said that the business was enjoying “very healthy double-digit growth” of both revenue and profits, but the product reached a certain level of maturity that spurred the team to want to “accelerate growth” and more aggressively attack the global market of tech-savvy Muslims. 

INTERVIEW PT 2 WITH ERWAN MACE: BITSMEDIA GROWTH TRAJECTORY (2015)

Interview published Ocotber 1, 2015. See here for transcript

INVESTOR APPETITE

It’s safe to say that the buyers of Bitsmedia are big fish. Affin Hwang’s pedigree can be traced back to one of Malaysia’s leading government-linked investment houses. The firm itself has $10 billion in assets under management.

Affin Hwang Capital is a group that creates and purveys capital markets advisory intelligence and executes services in investment banking, institutional and retail securities, and asset management. Its parent company Affin Bank is a wholly owned subsidiary of Armed Forces-linked Affin Holdings Berhad, which is publicly traded on the Bursa Malaysia stock exchange.

Affin Bank has multiple subsidiaries actively participating in the Islamic economy. Its subsidiary Affin Islamic Bank Berhad provides enterprise and consumer banking services, and it also engages in the debt and capital market.

From a business-to-consumer perspective, it seems likely that Affin Islamic Bank sees an opportunity to capitalize on Muslim Pro’s reach to 45 million faith-practising smartphone owners. Macé told Salaam Gateway: “CMIA and Affin Hwang did not only see the pure financial appeal of this transaction, they have expressed a strong interest in our existing business and in the new opportunities we are seeking in the halal food and travel industries, e-commerce, and even potentially Islamic finance.”

INTERVIEW PT 3 WITH ERWAN MACE: "WE NEED SUCCESS MODELS" (2015)

Interview published Ocotber 1, 2015. See here for transcript

THINKING CHINA, GLOBAL

Looking at the deal from the outside, the acquisition made clear strategic sense for Affin Hwang, but for CMIA, the logic is seemingly less obvious. The Singapore-based private equity firm – which was founded in 2003 and launched its fourth fund in 2011 to the tune of $200 million for bets in China and Southeast Asia – claims to focus primarily on food and agriculture sectors.

The bulk of its published portfolio reflects this. Past investments for CMIA include vegetable company China Minzhong, which IPO’d on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2010; and Haikui, a China-based seafood processor and exporter that listed on the Prime Standard of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in May of 2012. CMIA typically invests in both minority and majority stakes of small and medium-sized companies.     

In a press statement, CMIA’s managing partner Lee Chong Min expressed interest in Muslim Pro’s “collaborations with halal food vendors” and is likely taking an interest in the fact that Muslim Pro could be the key to cornering China’s underserved halal market – a space that pundits are calling one of the fastest growing in the world, representing an untapped $21 billion opportunity. In this sense, Bitsmedia’s acquisition may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Islamic tech investment activity.

The app runs on a freemium model, meaning all the features are available in the free version of Muslim Pro, which is supported by mobile advertising. The $4.99 premium upgrade allows users to remove ads completely and have additional customization options such as a larger selection of voices for the adhan and Quran recitations, as well as various color themes. Mobile advertising accounts for 90 percent of Muslim Pro’s revenue and in-app purchases make up 10 percent.

Macé remains tight-lipped about the app's actual revenue, but adds, “Both CMIA and Affin Hwang have been very proactive in contributing ideas and strategies which could take Muslim Pro to the next level – this was one of the qualities which most attracted me when engaging with them during the deal process. They really took time and effort to understand our business and its challenges and opportunities, and together we have developed some superb ideas which could really change the Muslim app landscape once we roll these out to the user base.”

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