It was billed as an Islamic answer to Alibaba, an Amazon for the Muslim world and an e-commerce halal marketplace that could rival eBay.
Although Zilzar.com has yet to have become a household name in online retailing, the Muslim lifestyle startup is leading a burgeoning global halal industry into the digital economy.
Less than a year after it launched in October 2014, the Malaysia-based platform now carries goods and services from more than 12,000 vendors around the world, offering everything from electronic Qurans and Shariah-compliant cosmetics to Islamic lawyers and halal travel packages.
In March, Medium.com listed its “50 Most Innovative Global Muslim Startups for 2015,” including Zilzar (Arabic for “earthquake”) among the honorees.
For Love Yadav, managing director of Malaysia's KasehDia Capital, a private equity advisory and consulting firm specialising in halal industry initiatives, Zilzar has finally cut through the noise about creating a halal market through e-commerce.
“Zilzar seems to be one of the first initiatives that has been able to put forward a proof of concept and a commercial model,” says Yadav, “which, given the numbers and dynamics in the Muslim world, shows good potential.”
For his part, Zilzar CEO and co-founder Rushdi Siddiqui is feeling the pressure to dominate the online Muslim market and take market share away from the established e-commerce juggernauts.
“Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world,” says Siddiqui, speaking from Kuala Lumpur, “and people are going to continue to consume, to continue to eat, to continue to wear stuff, to continue to travel.”
Siddiqui says the goal is to overtake Alibaba in terms of its number of halal suppliers.
The $2 billion Chinese e-commerce service had just over 1,800 sellers in September 2014 that explicitly listed themselves as "halal suppliers."
Siddiqui's target for 2018 is to expand Zilzar's database to more than 1 million online merchants selling Shariah-compliant goods and services.
"We first wanted to prove the business model works," Siddiqui says. "I'm happy with where we are, but we're hopefully increasing that number of merchants by five- to 10-fold within the next two to three years."
The economic case for trying to cash in on the global halal marketplace is compelling.
The Muslim consumer and lifestyle sectors were worth an estimated $2 trillion in 2013, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2014-15 from Thomson Reuters. By 2019, the report forecasts that the marketplace will grow to $3.7 trillion.
Increasingly, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the lucrative halal space.
“You’re seeing Alibaba in this space, Amazon in this space, eBay in this space,” Siddiqui says.
With technology as a great equalizer, Zilzar offers a digital storefront for small and micro-enterprises specializing in halal-certified and Muslim-friendly products.
The website also lends some assurance to consumers that the products are verified by recognized halal-certification bodies.
Navigating the multitude of halal standards among the 57 different states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) could prove challenging, however.
Yadav says any halal e-commerce startup will have to overcome confidence issues.
“It’s all about credibility and trust, which goes beyond the product in hand,” he says. “It’s also about traceability of the origin and everything in between.”
Siddiqui says Zilzar has implemented measures to assure halal compliance.
The website will proceed to first-round funding by the end of the year and will begin charging vendor registration fees in 2016.
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