Saya: A Smart Chat App Alternative To The Smartphone

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Written by Steven J. Smith

Robert Lamptey, CEO of Saya, recognized the need for non-smartphone users in Africa to have advanced text message features found on smartphones, which led to the founding of his Ghana-based company.

“Not everyone in the world has a smartphone,” Lamptey said. “Actually, there are 5.4 billion non-smartphones on the air right now. We wanted to make SMS (text messaging) sexy.”

So, Lamptey and his partner Badu Boahen developed Saya, an app that they say beautifies SMS while cutting the cost of using it. The app exists on the top of a user’s phone contact database, which serves as an instant message type of interface with conversation threads. The app also provides Facebook chat as well as chat with local users employing cellular location information rather than GPS.

“With Saya, users are able to send iPhone-like threaded messaging on non-smartphones to your phone contacts,” Lamptey said. “Then we pushed it further. We allowed people to create groups with their phone contacts and send messages to them, and they don’t have to pay three, five, or 10 times the cost of SMS that they are used to paying.”

With $70,000 in seed money obtained from the Meltwater Foundation, Lamptey and Boahen launched Saya in 2011. In its first two months the app went viral with 400,000 downloads, and users were already sending 100,000 message per day in Ghana, Syria, India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, among others.

“All of a sudden we were giving billions of people in the world a mouthpiece to send messages and communicate,” Lamptey said. “Saya is not just a chat application. It’s actually a business. And we monetize with advertisements. We in emerging economies don’t have access to information. We see ads as informational, and we respond to that information.”

Lamptey predicts smartphones will eventually take over the entire mobile phone market, which is why Saya is currently building for BlackBerry, Android, and iOS as well.

“We’re working on a smartphone variant of Saya,” he said. “We found our users are social — small families and extended families, a community. Once we push out the new releases, you will see that (aspect) in our improvements.”

The new releases are due out any time now, Lamptey said. In the meantime, he sees his company serving a very basic need: bringing lower-income users online and creating a revenue stream from them.

“When I’m asked what I see in the future, I see Saya as the platform that solves an SMS problem, of course,” Lamptey said. “But Saya will also bring Internet access to people who will use iTunes and online shopping on their non-smartphones. And we will bring this to the billions of people who need it.”