Want to stay with an Emirati family? There may soon be an app for that

Student developer hopes 'to keep Emirati culture alive' by connecting residents and tourists with UAE homeowners

Makan, a UAE homestay app, won a government-backed social innovation competition. Photo: Department of Community Development
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A young app developer is hoping to share the Emirati way of life with the world.

The app, called Makan, allows users to book a stay in traditional homes and farms in the UAE. Still in its design stage, it was developed by Zayed University student Khawla Abdullatif Alhammadi and aims to connect residents and tourists with Emiratis who are keen to share their culture and their homes.

It was recently named the winner of the Department of Community Development’s social innovation competition, Univate.

Khawla Abdullatif Alhammadi says she hopes the concept will benefit elderly and retired Emiratis. Photo: Department of Community Development

“Makan started out as a design project that I worked on as part of my graphic design degree,” Alhammadi says. “My instructor motivated me to sign up for Univate because he thought it was a good idea, and that it was going to help nurture a multicultural cohesive community.”

Alhammadi says the app will be distinct from the likes of Airbnb in that it will exclusively feature traditional Emirati homes and farms. “The visitor will not only live in the space but will interact with the owners during their stay, cooking and sitting with them,” she adds.

Alhammadi says she hopes the concept will come to form in the near future, and that it will benefit elderly and retired Emiratis.

“They will help keep Emirati culture alive, not only to locals but to tourists and people from other cultures.”

With Makan’s goal of connecting different communities, Alhammadi says it was a happy coincidence that the root of her project aligned with Univate’s core mission.

Held in collaboration with the Authority of Social Contribution, the competition aims to spread awareness about social challenges in Abu Dhabi, improve the well-being and quality of life of the people who live in the Emirate, and promote the building of a multicultural, cohesive community that embraces diversity.

The competition received 47 submissions from more than 90 students in Abu Dhabi’s leading higher education institutions, such as Zayed University, Higher Colleges of Technology, Khalifa University, New York University Abu Dhabi and Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.

An idea for an app that connects users through local volunteering efforts came second place.

Dhabyani was developed by Zayed University students Mahreen Munir, Gabriel Xavier Basques Soares and Aisha Omar Salim Lihwaidi Al Ali. Photo: Aisha Omar Al Ali

The app, called Dhabyani, was developed by Zayed University students Mahreen Munir, Gabriel Xavier Basques Soares and Aisha Omar Salim Lihwaidi Al Ali.

The app’s target audience is Abu Dhabi students aged between 17 to 22, who are looking to meet friends from various cultures, engage with the community, and help others while doing so.

“Our app has two features,” Al Ali says. “It matches you with a group of people, and it allocates to a volunteering opportunity. Our matching algorithm is simply because we’ve found that meeting friends is hard. By matching, we allow you to enter specific preferences, your likes and dislikes and match with people who are similar to you, but also different in terms of race, ethnicity and background.

“In terms of volunteering, we found that a lot of research shows that when people come together for a specific goal, they form intimate bonds and connections. We thought it was great to mix these two things together.”

The app will connect users based on matching interests. Photo: Aisha Omar Al Ali

An idea for a community mentorship programme was awarded the third-place prize.

Developed by Khalifa University student Ayah Mohamad Miqdady, the programme connects residents who are familiar with Abu Dhabi with new expats who are looking for advice about finding housing and enrolling in schools, as well as for emotional support and guidance on cultural customs and expectations.

“The mentorship programme would provide an opportunity for new immigrants to receive guidance and support as they navigate the challenges of living in a new culture,” Miqdady says.

The app will help those arriving in Abu Dhabi overcome cultural differences and language barriers, and help them find suitable accommodation.

“It also helps to reduce prejudice and discrimination, and can lead to a more harmonious and tolerant society.”

Miqdady has high hopes for the mentorship programme, saying she envisions it being supported by a local non-profit organisation or by the government. “It could be promoted through community centres, schools and online platforms,” she says. “It could be offered for free or for a nominal fee, and volunteers could be trained as mentors and matched with mentees based on their cultural background, interests and needs.

The inspiration for the idea may have come from the peer mentor programme at Khalifa University, in which Miqdady participated and “found very useful”.

The programme connects freshman students with those from higher years and helps them adapt to the university experience.

“Every freshman is assigned a peer mentor at the beginning of the year and the mentor helps assist them in any way possible through academic and social hardships,” Miqdady says.

The individuals and teams behind the three winning ideas have received in-kind monetary rewards. Their ideas will be implemented by the DCD or its partners, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders.

Ayah Mohamad Miqdady, who came third with idea for a community mentorship programme. Photo: Department of Community Development

“At the DCD, we have been impressed by the creativity that the participating students have shown through the Univate contest, and we are very proud of the profound innovative thinking skills which the students were able to demonstrate during the proposals presentation day” Shaikha Alhosani, executive director of the Social Monitoring and Innovation Sector at DCD, said.

“The three winning ideas all focus on social connection and the strengthening of ties among the diverse communities that live in Abu Dhabi. These students have tapped into and understood the DCD’s goals — which are to uplift community cohesion and provide a dignified life for everyone who lives in Abu Dhabi.

“We’re eager to explore how these brilliant ideas can be implemented by the DCD for the benefit of all those who live in the emirate.”

Updated: April 28, 2023, 6:02 PM