The idea of “fitting in” with an Emirati twist could mark a coming of age for the local animation sector.
Ajyaal Media was formed in 2009 with the pilot success of the character of Hamdoon, a six-year-old Emirati boy who returns to the UAE to live with his grandparents after spending several years in the UK with his parents.
Once in his home country, the conflict between younger and older generations, the complex and amusing situations that ensue, and the hard time Hamdoon has trying to fit in because of his mixed western and Emirati upbringing, were an instant hit with the local population.
“People received it as a national pride symbol,” says Abdulla Al Sharhan, the creator of Hamdoon and illustrator for Ajyaal Media, based in Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media free zone.
An illustrator at heart, Mr Al Sharhan was a marketing officer by day for a telecommunications company when he came up with the idea.
The success meant his enterprise was shortlisted as a finalist at the Gulf Capital SME Awards in the Emirati Business of the Year category last year.
Despite the uniqueness and social relevance of the character, the small business had a hard time in setting up given the high costs involved and the limited nature of the UAE market for an animation company, says the owner.
During the setting-up process, there is no way back once the ball has been set rolling, says Mr Al Sharhan, 33.
He and two other business partners Taha Al Mansoori and Marwan Al Marzooqi put in Dh1.4 million as initial investment, drawn mainly from a loan from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and the remaining 10 per cent from their personal savings.
He had tested the idea of Hamdoon for about two years and created the company when it was ready for funds to scale it up. During the testing period, the founders set up a website and sold car stickers at places such as shops selling car decorations.
“It went viral,” according to Mr Al Sharhan. “We got a lot of emails requesting the use of Hamdoon, even from government agencies.”
The going got tougher when it came to setting up a physical presence.
There were no business incubators in Abu Dhabi at that time, and high real estate prices meant the business costs were high. Recruiting skilled staff for the content creation was also expensive and difficult.
“We are very, very lucky to have survived,” he says.
Ajyaal Media paid back the Khalifa Fund loan last year, and now employs six full-time staff, excluding Mr Al Sharhan, and is in the process of hiring four more, and the company has two more illustrators from Egypt. It nets a yearly average revenue of above Dh1m and has experienced 20 per cent growth each year for the past three years.
The high rate of piracy is a stumbling block, as is “the people not appreciating original content”, Mr Al Sharhan says. “The government can support you, but if it doesn’t come from the people it is difficult.”
The challenges of the content creation sector in the local market also stems from the small UAE population.
The key to any such company is that it must have a unique intellectual property that sells, Mr Al Sharhan says. But the limited UAE market means that it needs to look not only Gulf-wide but worldwide for the long-term viability of the company.
While Hamdoon is a local character, Mr Al Nuaimi says he and his team have designed the character to appeal to other cultures.
They have hired an American consultant who advises them on ways to make the storyline and humour appealing in other countries.
In 2012, the Hamdoon Cartoon Series showing the adventures of the lead character as he tries to blend into the local Emirati culture debuted on television in a 15-part series. It was sponsored by the then Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
Now known as the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the agency in 2013 also promoted children’s books in which Hamdoon gave tips for healthy eating and the importance of physical exercise. The books were distributed across government schools.
Now Ajyaal Media expects to release DVDs of the animation series involving the wide-eyed Hamdoon not only in the region but also in Tunisia, Malaysia and Indonesia among other countries.
It is now looking to raise Dh6m to release the second season of Hamdoon on DVD. The first season is expected to be released on DVD this year.
As of now, all of its clients have been government and semi-government agencies. Dubai-based Al Ramsa Institute, which opened last year, has used the Hamdoon series to teach students how to speak Arabic with an Emirati accent.
But when Ajyaal Media launches the DVDs, it will go directly to consumers.
The company has also evolved since it started.
“We have changed the way we operate to fit into the market here,” Mr Al Sharhan says. “We have balanced content creation and service providing.”
Ajyaal Media was created in 2009 in Abu Dhabi, and develops educational and entertainment content for children and youth. It does so through the character Hamdoon, an Emirati boy. Hamdoon means “thankful” in Arabic. The content has touched upon topics such as healthy eating, the importance of physical exercise, career choices and safety instructions for children. Ajyaal Media has also created content for a magazine called Kids Park to educate children on wildlife, and for the mobile application The Mighty Migration to create awareness about the endangered bird the Houbara. Its clients include agencies and companies such as Abu Dhabi Police, Higher Council of National Security, AbuDhabi Culture and Tourism Authority, Ministry of Education, and Etihad Airways.
Abdulla Al Sharhan is a UAE University graduate, specialising in management information systems. He is self-taught in the field of art since childhood. Mr Al Sharhan is currently finishing a master’s degree in entrepreneurial leadership from Hamdan bin Mohammed Smart University in Dubai. He still works for a telecommunications company and has three children aged three to nine.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter