While the Western world is rushing headlong into smartphone heaven – with powerful touchscreen devices that are more mini computers than voice-calling phones – mobiles found in Africa are the kind of phones found in European cities before the millennium shift, so-called feature phones.
The reason is simple. The bromide problem of the difference in price, however, is not the main explanation. With a growing although still erratic infrastructure across Africa, the vast majority of people (an estimated 1.5 billion, according to the UN) have no electricity. That means for a phone to be functional it needs a decent battery life. So while people have access to mobile devices there is an exorbitant lack of instruments capable of recharging the cellphones. The feature phone – with its outdated qualities – erodes the smartphone and its eminent attributes making it a diluted acquisition. The consequence is the bill: sending text messages where payments average a cost of up to five percent of a net monthly salary. However the fee becomes pale in comparison with battery life; but free communication is a universal need not a luxurious benefit that should be bound to smartphones. This is where Saya Mobile comes in.
Saya Mobile – “The SMS killer bringing smart-phone-like messaging to billions of low-end devices in emerging markets.”
The Saya Mobile team, currently consisting of the two founders Robert Lamptey and Badu Boahen, established the company in Ghana during the fall of 2011. It all started with the problem of not possessing a smartphone, i.e., “not being able to download all the cool apps that make communication easier and less expensive”. They wanted to put together a platform for all cellphones focusing on feature phones where the user could communicate for free and in groups, thus Saya Mobile was born. Consisting of four different features: free texting, facebook chat, group chat and street chat – similar to the hash-tag quality Twitter embraces.
Starting out on home ground, they sent out 2000 invitations by sms to people in Ghana which resulted in over 400,000 downloads of their app that eventually became a proliferator for the 9 billion backlog invitations. The gigantic interest put the company on the map. Shortly after Saya Mobile could haul in the Meltwater Foundation as their lead financial investor. Furthermore, the success of the company granted the company an invitation to the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt (TCD) event in San Francisco where Mr.Lamptey and Mr.Boahen searched for further investments seeing that their main holdup to scale was liquidity.
When at the TCD, a core group of highly successful financial gurus posed unintelligent anecdotal questions to the Saya founders seeming rather callous and crude. Implicating that it was a tenuous boondoggle – understated by the probability of a smartphone boom – seeing that “four or five years ago there weren’t close to as many phones there are today on the global market”. The two young entrepreneurs answered in an egalitarian conceptual spirit moving the focus from earning profit to the social economic advantages that can be provided. For instance, during the 2007-2008 political crisis in Kenya, people stuck in Nairobi could spread the word of the then current situation through their feature phones The company has also seen an enormous traffic linked to activism in Syria during its ongoing civil war. Furthermore Mr. Lamptey stated that even if there is a possibility of smartphones taking over the [African] market, the possibility of feature-phone extinction is still on the horizon.
Today the core group of users has been established. Lastly shining some light over the company’s announcement on its upcoming expansion into the smartphone market. However, the consequence of serving as a tool similar to the already established communication platforms makes it a dime a dozen. This the founders acknowledged already during the business plan. The attribute is however not redundant. It connects feature-phone networks to smartphone users. Therefore, in the future when infrastructure in Africa covers larger areas – both within landmass and electricity – the need for long-life feature phones will deficit. The consequence being the everlasting issue of extravagant purchases becoming the main stakeholder. Some will afford smartphones and some will not and Saya’s role will be able to connect the different networks. From this point of view it is hard to reason with the financial gurus problems with seeing a bright future for Saya mobile economically wise. For it is a long time until all 5.4 billion feature-phone users across the globe can afford a smartphone and Saya mobile will be filling the communication gap as long as there is a pinch of low-end phones around.