Saya Mobile Has A Message: It Wants To Be The Whatsapp For The Feature Phones Of The World

Whatsapp has emerged as the leading, cross-platform messaging app among smartphone users, reaching the 10 billion messages per-day mark a couple of weeks ago. But when it comes to offering cheap messaging services to the billions of people in the world who use mobile devices that are not smartphones (arguably people who could really benefit the most from a low-cost solution), the game is wide open. Ghana’s Saya Mobile, which offers an instant messaging and SMS service to feature phones geared specifically to emerging markets like Africa, is launching today at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco to be that solution.

Saya is doing this with a product that is based on Java and combines some of the features seen in smartphone apps like Whatsapp, RIM’s BBM, and Facebook, and then some: Social network integration, location-based chat, Facebook chat and group chat across different feature phone platforms. And to serve the small but growing number of smartphone users, Saya will be launching iOS and Android apps, as well.

But the opportunity first and foremost is feature phones: in emerging markets there are 5.4 billion mobile subscribers. In Asia and Africa alone, Saya Mobile estimates that there are 580 million — with upwards of 70 percent of them on Internet-enabled devices, many of them not smartphones.

There is a clear opportunity for disruption here. As with other developing markets, messaging is a popular way for people to communicate in Africa. Part of that is because it is cheaper than phone calls.

But in a region where money is so very tight (per capita income in Ghana, for example, is 4 percent that of the U.S.) those messages still cost something (up to 5 percent of their monthly salary going to SMS apparently), and so Saya is offering to make it even cheaper — literally 1,000 times cheaper: Traditional SMS messages can cost $0.01 each to send (with photo messages costing more). Saya’s service uses so little data that the price works out to $0.01 per month. In a market where users buy phone credits by prepay to use flexibly across voice, data, and text services, this spells a major bargain.

And it should be pointed out that Saya is also riding a bigger trend of data-based mobile instant messaging services gradually taking over from SMS. This year, there will be 5.9 trillion mobile IMs sent, compared to 8.6 trillion SMSes. But mobile IMs have been catching up, and by 2016 the balance will be 20.3 trillion mobile IMs to 9.6 trillion SMSes.

Business model. While Whatsapp has bitten the bullet on pricing models and sells its app as a paid product in order to keep it free of advertising, Saya is taking the “other” approach — a free app supported by ads.

“The markets where we work are not as sensitive to advertising as they are in other markets,” Saya’s co-founder Robert Lamptey told me in an interview.

He says that often advertising is even seen as information rather than information-overload. The example he gave me was the ability to find a place to eat. While there are few services that can help mobile users find, say, the closest pizza restaurant, an advertisement, delivered near a user’s location, can provide that data. “We get bombarded by ads all the time,” he says. “We don’t feel they are spam. They are information.” The key to that will be to keep the ads relevant, he says, which is where things, such as location data will come in handy.

In any case, ads, he says, will not be turned on until the company reaches a certain number of users on its service. And when those do begin, they will likely be in combination with mobile advertising networks that already made some headway in emerging markets. (Those include companies like inMobi, although it’s not clear yet who will work with Saya.)

There have been some very impressive usage numbers so far in the trials that Saya has run that speak to Saya being on to something. Putting the service out among a couple of thousand users across India, Indonesia, Egypt, Ghana, and Nigeria, with basically no marketing (the whole service so far has been bootstrapped by the founders, Robert Lamptey and Badu Boahen, pictured here), Saya went viral.

Because the app has a “suggest Saya to your friends” feature (which accesses users’ contact books and sends out invites to them), soon after the trial started the number of users ballooned to 400,000, including even some users appearing in Syria (where, Lamptey notes, the big thing seems to be the group messaging feature). Then those 400,000 users generated a further 8.7 million invitations. At that point, Saya decided to hold back until properly launching its beta.

But that kind of popularity is bound to attract another kind of attention: the ire of mobile carriers who can start losing messaging revenue in Saya’s target markets if this begins to take off as the trial implies that it might.

“Getting blocked is a worry we have,” admitted Lamptey. He says that for now he and Boahen have “mitigated that by using data and running on http because the telcos cannot block http like other communication channels. For now that worry has been taken care of.”

That may be a short-term solution, though. Operators are trying to get together to offer an equivalent of this service, Lamptey notes. However, the company is already thinking of ways that it might be a useful avenue rather than a disruptive adversary. One idea is to offer Saya through operators and let them use the platform as a way of promoting their ringtone and other services within the app.

Questions from the panel:

How do you get the 9m backlog activated? It’s growing way out of proportion; that’s why we’re here to fundraise.

Do you have a way of porting to PCs? Yes, we have an extension that we want to push out in the next month.

What is the difference between you and other services like Whatsapp? We’re trying to support the lowest phones that access the Internet. The smartphone market in Europe and the U.S. is crazy and crowded. There is lots of other space for development there. The big players here should stay here.

Is there an opportunity to buy messages and be a mediation? Yes it’s something that we are discussing. There are some phones that cannot access this, so if this can help move that, this helps.