A fund of opportunities on offer for SMEs

A company which owns advertising billboards that blast people on the capital's Corniche with a cool vapour mist is one of 300 Emirati-owned projects which have received interest free loans from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development.

Amran Al Sharhan and Ali Al Kayed were sunbathing on a beach one hot summer's day when they made a decision: start an advertising company.

However, to compete against the dozens of agencies already operating in the UAE they knew it would have to be a bit different. The pair were in need of some inspiration.

But what they did not realise at the time was they already had it.

"Before we started to invent a concept we thought, 'I wonder if there are other concepts in the world that were not [here] in the region,'" says Mr Al Sharhan.

"It was summertime. It was hot. We were researching and we found it," he adds.

What Mr Al Sharhan and his business partner Mr Al Kayed, who both work for the Government, had stumbled across was a website for Cool Media, which produces advertising billboards that blast passers-by with cooling vapour at a touch of the button.

"We thought, 'Why not bring this here?' as the idea would fit the environment and atmosphere of this country more than anywhere else in the world," says Mr Al Sharhan.

The business partners approached the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and became one of 300 projects to receive funding from the body.

Mr Al Sharhan cannot say how much he received but it was enough to buy 10 Cool Media units and these have been rented out to big-name brands including Flash, Al Ansari Exchange, Unilever and Lipton. Mr Al Sharhan and Mr Al Kayed now plan to expand their business, which they also called Cool Media, within the Emirates and the wider GCC.

Set up in 2007, the Khalifa Fund was created as an independent agency of the Abu Dhabi Government with Dh1 billion (US$272.2m) to support Emirati entrepreneurs, providing loans of up to Dh3m or a maximum of Dh10m in project investments. Some companies, such as Falcon Gallery Landscaping in Abu Dhabi, already existed when they approached the Khalifa Fund for a loan and used the money to help growth.

"If we compare when we started before Khalifa Fund it was different. It helped us," says Salah Al Hasimi, who owns Falcon Gallery Landscaping with his brother, Mohammed.

"At that time we had only 10 employees. After Khalifa Fund, we grew and now we have 139," he adds. But for other entrepreneurs, Khalifa Fund money helped their business weather financial storms.

Mohammed Abedin set up Foo Dog, the region's first designer toy company, in 2008 when he was just 19. Business was good at first but then the banking crisis hit.

"I started losing a lot of my clients. The business was not really self-sustaining at that time," he says. He approached Khalifa Fund and received a loan.

"It was like a turning point," he says.

Initiatives such as the Khalifa Fund have had a positive impact on the entrepreneurship environment in the UAE, says Vishnu Deuskar, the managing director of the small-business consultancy Salvus Strategic Advisors.

"The fund not only provides finance through its different schemes but offers enabling support by way of training and mentoring," he says.

Many young companies and individual entrepreneurs have already taken advantage of the fund but it is an opportunity more should consider, says Mr Al Sharhan.

"Nowhere around the world does the government provide so many keys and benefits to start businesses such as in the UAE, so take advantage.

"Get out there and contribute in any way you can."