Accra, Ghana-based chat application Saya has already gone viral, with 400,000 downloads in two months. The company’s product is a replacement for text messaging — like WhatsApp for feature phones — and users are already sending 100,000 messages per day in Ghana, Syria, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Saya lives on top of a user’s phone contact book, and at a basic level is an instant message-style interface with conversation threads. The app also offers Facebook chat and chat with nearby users using cellular location information rather than GPS.
Though smartphones may be where the future lies, Saya co-founder and CEO Robert Lamptey pointed out there are still 5.4 billion non-smartphones currently on the air. (And Saya is also building for BlackBerry, Android, iOS and the Chrome browser, too.)
There doesn’t seem to be any real secret sauce to Saya except an interest in serving this need. Like WhatsApp, Saya doesn’t operate its own social network, but rather acts as a tool for users to connect to their existing contacts.
Saya subsidizes an invite sent via regular text message for each of the phone contacts of its users, but it currently has a backlog of 9 million of those invites, given that the company only has $70,000 in total funding from the Meltwater Foundation.
Saya can run the rest of its service relatively cheaply because its users pay regular data charges — which tend to be significantly lower than text message charges — to chat with each other over the Internet. Lamptey said he doubts that carriers will be able to shut Saya down because they’d likely have to block all mobile Web access to do so.
Saya plans to make money by showing advertising, which Lamptey argued is the best possible solution for his markets. “We in emerging economies do not have access to information, so we see ads as information,” he said.
Though Lamptey was clearly exhausted by the time of the finals judging, Saya did quite well at Disrupt, finishing as a finalist behind winner YourMechanic (a mobile marketplace service for car repairs that’s currently live only in the San Francisco Bay Area).