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Amid economic crisis new angel network aims for $100 mln in commitments for halal start-ups by year-end


The launch of Halal Angels Network by Pune-based Indian-American Dr. Tausif Malik in May received widespread media coverage for its claim to already receive several requests from 600 investors and start-ups from across the MENA region as it looks to raise $100 million worth of investments by the end of this year. 

Speaking to Salaam Gateway over the phone, Dr. Malik, founder of the network, said it has already signed up around 15-20 angel investors from Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India with $10 million worth of commitments within less than two months of its launch. “We target to reach around 100 angels by the first week of September and 250 angels with $100 million worth of commitments by end of this year,” he said, adding the network will close the membership once it reaches 500 angels.

The network aims to “promote innovation, entrepreneurship and start-ups” globally to tap halal consumer markets, which Dr. Malik says is worth $5 trillion.

He has attracted media attention internationally, with over 300 outlets already covering the news. Back home in India, community and industry practitioners Salaam Gateway spoke to remain highly sceptical and unenthusiastic to the development.

CHALLENGING

“Being enthusiastic is good but the risk is that many times it takes us away from the ground realities. When you call something halal you have to look at two aspects; one, the business must be entirely halal and second the whole process of that business has to be completely halal,” said Dr. Shariq Nisar, a Mumbai-based Islamic finance academic and professional.

Industry players say the halal sector has its inherent challenges and the current market scenario remains highly challenging for start-ups and fundraising.

“In the current environment, if someone succeeds in raising even $1 million for halal start-ups, I would consider it a huge success. I guess $100 million could just be a marketing term to attract media attention,” said Mohammed Abubakr, Founder & CEO of Zibew, a digital solutions company for pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare institutions. He is also a founding member of two entrepreneurial groups, the Muslim Startup Brains (MSB) and Muslim Owned IT companies (MOIT).

However, Halal Angels Network is neither a venture capital nor into any kind of fundraising, according to Dr. Malik, who said it is “ just a network” that functions “as a club”. “If it was a private equity fund or venture capital funds, there are a lot of regulations from multiple countries,” he said, adding one doesn’t need government regulation for angel networks.

Dr. Malik insists that if you have quality angels, “$100-$200 million is not a big amount”.

While the current economic crisis has slowed down investments in general, with the U.N. agency UNCTAD forecasting a 40% drop in 2020, industry players say their experience with Muslim investors is that “even generally they are averse to high-risk investment avenues such as start-ups”.

“Very few investors I have met are actually open to investing in start-ups, and that too, only if we study the deal and give them the go-ahead,” said Raashid Sherif, Head of Investments at Bangalore-based Rehbar, which fundraises for entrepreneurs and businesses looking for Shariah-compliant modes of financing.

As an example, Dubai-based Falcon Network, a group of emerging markets-based impact-driven angel investors, announced its first round of investments, worth $450,000, in six start-ups (out of 223 applications) in August 2019, around a year after it launched. And this is pre-COVID crisis. Falcon says on its website it has 50 angel investors.

Dr. Malik agrees that investor mood is totally different right now. “Start-ups take a long time. It’s like nurturing a baby. Currently, investors are looking for businesses that are making money. Our agenda is: once we do phase one of our outreach to angels, we would start picking up deals which are already making money,” he said.

His optimism is not shared by Islamic finance practitioner Dr. Nisar, who does not believe there is enough appetite in the market for start-ups given the current market scenario.

“I have been associated with every (properly regulated) Shariah-compliant options in the country till date and I have never found investors chasing projects just because they are halal.”

INDIA: UNORGANIZED SECTOR

While there are many start-ups run by Muslim founders in India, Rehbar’s Sherif says very few have been able to scale without compromising on Shariah principles.

In the absence of government backing for halal industries or permission for Islamic banking or insurance (takaful) products, India’s halal market has largely been restricted to the food sector, forcing communities to look for alternative or unorganized ways of promoting their Islamic businesses.   

“We don’t have strong institutional arrangements in place to pool resources from a large number of people. Many of those who ventured to support in the past have been bitten by fly-by-night operators,” said Dr. Nisar.

Ponzi schemes of Heera Gold and Ambidant Marketing that duped thousands of Muslims of their hard-earned money are the most recent cases.  

Dr. Malik agrees the halal market is not very streamlined yet. “There are a lot of good start-ups and businesses but they never get funding. And people who get funding run away.”

This is one of the reasons for the emergence of Halal Angels Network, that Dr. Malik says works on a blockchain so that everything can be tracked. “We already have worked 60% of the technology now. So, all our deals will be on the blockchain.”

DUE DILIGENCE

As part of the due diligence process, Dr. Malik says the Network will check the credentials of investors and companies before allowing them in. “We are checking their social media handles … and checking online if they have any criminal background and all. We also talk to them to know whether they behave similar to what our vision is.”

The network charges an annual fee of $300 to angel investors signing up with the platform and an application fee of $50 to companies for each pitch they send for consideration.

“We are doing the same thing with start-ups – interviewing, checking their background. So, if somebody is sending a pitch, we will not show the deal to everyone. We will review them. We will curate the deals,” he said.

In addition to putting the deals on blockchain, Dr. Malik said the network has signed up with technology company Delio to use its software which is generally used by financial companies.

HALAL MECHANISM

While the network calls itself a platform for halal investment and businesses, it has no Shariah scholars or experts on board to check if funds coming in or businesses taking money are halal or not.

In our interview with him over the phone on Jun 12, Dr. Malik said he didn't think the network needed to have Shariah experts or a Shariah board. 

“We don’t need a scholar to know what’s halal – whether the company is taking riba or not, paying salaries to his staff or not, paying suppliers or not…. whether giving customers what he has promised,” he said, asking what more can be halal in businesses.

(inserted updated para) On Jul 6, after the publication of this story, Dr. Malik clarified with Salaam Gateway that Halal Angels Network has "experts on [a] panel as [the] Board of Advisors and Consultants". "These are professionals from different industries and some of them are Islamic scholars. They provide the consulting to the start-ups and investors whenever it is required," he said in an email. He added on Jul 7 that the Network will announce events, board of advisors and consultants as part of its business plan.

Although the network is not raising funds, Shariah law experts say organisations claiming to be halal need to have some mechanism to ensure that the money that is being invested or the companies that are taking the funding through the network are compliant. 

“All these are extremely important and these will come through strong regulatory and control mechanisms, sans this, any market or platform will not thrive and find itself unable to avert exploitation. Policing is a must and for that, you need rules, regulations, experience and power,” said Dr. Nisar.

Dr. Malik insists he can do the job on his own and the network will induct only those companies that can produce halal certificates if their nature of business demands so.  

“The companies that will come to us will bring their own halal certifications. If they don’t bring certificate, we won’t process their application,” he said, adding that it’s not possible to check if the money is halal or not because he can’t check their bank accounts.

Industry players point out that the modus operandi and the rules and regulations by which the platform operates should be transparent, and they should not violate the Islamic rules of business such as avoiding riba, conflict of interest, fairness etc.

“Today halal has become a buzzword, but to live up to it and be true to the term requires good intention, thorough knowledge and concerted efforts,” said Sherif of Rehbar.

Abubakr of Zibew points out that the typical business model of the commercial platforms that bring investors and start-ups together is the success-fee model, where the platform founders take a percentage of investment.

“However, the model becomes very murky, then the platform also charges an amount for the gullible start-up founder with a lure of raising investment.  Such a platform sets up one or two meetings with investors who have no interest in making the investment and then charge an amount for start-up founders,” he warns, suggesting that start-up founders should stay away from anyone who charges an amount upfront for connecting with investors.

SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR

A serial entrepreneur himself, Dr. Malik is passionate about his new venture and has a big vision for halal entrepreneurship and businesses.

His parent company’s name is TMA Worldwide, which is registered in Chicago, USA, but he uses TMA Worldwide India for his businesses as he is based in India. The website listed on the company's LinkedIn page that we accessed on Jul 6, http://www.tmaww.com, however, appears to be taken by a Chinese entity.

Dr. Malik said his parent company has not uploaded any content on its website as it doesn’t want to promote itself but wants to focus on pushing its brands. Halal Angel Network is one of many brands under TMA Worldwide, according to the company’s LinkedIn page that says it has offices in Chicago (USA), Pune (India) and Bradford (UK).

It lists eight brands: GCCStartup.News; www.GulfAngelNetwork.com; www.GCCStartFest.com; www.IndiaStartFest.com; MuslimSpellingBee.com; www.MuslimHallofFame.com; www.Schoolpreneur.biz; www.AIMBSN.com

Dr. Malik said that four of the brands' websites are functioning: for AIMBSN, MuslimSpelling Bee.com, Halal Angels Netowrk, and GCCStartup.news.

There are significant similarities between the All India Muslim Business Startup Network (AIMBSN) and Halal Angels Network, from what Salaam Gateway saw of the two websites. They both have the exact same website design (by digital partner ROIWW) and feature the same set of six team members, including Dr. Malik himself.

These similarities make it look as though the All India Muslim Business Startup Network (AIMBSN) has been repackaged as Halal Angels Network to attract international investors and companies in the halal space. Dr. Malik calls the Halal Angels Network an extension of the AIMBSN.

This organisation, which was initially launched with other partners in 2016, held its first conference in 2017 in Pune. Since then, it hasn’t organised any more public conferences. According to Dr. Malik, there are 230 members associated with the network and it has organised networking and dinner events with members. 

Industry sources Salaam Gateway spoke to said they haven’t heard much of AIMBSN or its activities after the conference. We could not independently verify how many members are active on the network.

Dr. Malik told Salaam Gateway AIMBSN is a "private business network" that "not everyone will be aware of". He added that the majority of its members focus on specific reasons, for example for exports, imports, and investments. "We were finalising the proof of concept of our first start-up but pandemic COVID-19 struck and as everyone is affected, so are we," he said. 

(Reporting by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim emmy.abdulalim@salaamgateway.com)

*Updates were made on Jul 7 at three parts of this story: 1) to clarify that Dr. Malik uses TMA Worldwide India and not TMA Worldwide, (registered in Chicago, USA) for his businesses as he is based out of India and not Chicago, and that four of the parent company's businesses have functioning websites. 2) that AIMBSN is a private network, and 3) that Dr. Malik updated that Halal Angels Network has experts on a panel as its Board of Advisors and Consultants. 

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Syed Ameen Kader