Ghana-based chat application Saya has gained a huge following among mobile phone users across the globe. Founded in 2012, Saya is a replacement for text messaging much like WhatsApp, but built for feature phones.
Fresh out of the Accra-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, Robert Lamptey built Saya to solve the problem of expensive SMS messaging which most feature phone users face.
The app has gained users in 35 countries across the globe and is actively used in developing countries outside Africa such as Syria, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Lamptey notes that Saya has been popular among users in the revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Libya. The service initially offered group messaging for non-smartphones but has now expanded to the smartphone market.
The initial adoption of the platform came as a surprise to Lamptey and his co-founder Badu Boahen. Speaking in Nairobi last week, Lamptey recounted how the company’s servers crashed several times due to overwhelming demand from users. The application went viral with 400,000 downloads in its first two months.
“Five months after the launch we got 14m people who had been invited by their friends to use the service. We realised that each person was inviting about 100 people to join. There was this guy in India who had 120 people on his phonebook using Saya. We contacted him and he told us he found it useful. In fact, India is our largest user,” says the CEO of Saya Mobile.
Lamptey attributes the success of Saya Mobile to his upbringing in a household where striving to be the best was encouraged.
“I was one of the few kids in the neighbourhood who had a chemistry lab [and] who dismantled TVs. I was a science student. I used to win all the literature awards in school. My father always taught me to be the best in everything I did. Even if I wanted to be a footballer, there was one rule: be the best.”
Lamptey told How we made it in Africa that Saya is moving into enterprise messaging, a venture that will help the company to monetise. He explains that Saya Mobile waited this long because there was “no clear way to monetise”.
“Most of the ways to monetise involved premium SMS and the margins were not good because telcos would take about 75% of the amount and the company providing a short code would also take a cut. The math just didn’t make sense,” he says. “I think for us the right conditions were not available. If we had been in Kenya where M-Pesa was started, it would have been easy to plug in M-Pesa into the app.”
Saya Mobile has raised funding in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to cover its operating costs and technology development.
The ugly side of entrepreneurship
Lamptey notes that the biggest hurdle Saya faces is “money issues”.
“The thing most big companies forget is that a startup has a limited time to survive and that when we want to do a deal with a telco for instance, and they drag their feet, it becomes very frustrating.