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ByteDance Shuts Down Free African Messaging App That Failed to Challenge WhatsApp

Image via @LetsChatWorld.

Chinese tech firm ByteDance shut down its three-year-old multimedia messaging app LetsChat earlier this month, a rare defeat for the social media giant that hoped the platform would take off among Africa’s ballooning youth population.

In contrast to TikTok, ByteDance’s short video and entertainment app, which is very popular in Africa, most people might not even know that LetsChat even existed: The app also never came close to competing with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for Africa’s instant messaging market. 

In March 2021, LetsChat launched in Nigeria — where ByteDance hired staff and the app would find the vast majority of its users — with campaigns by media influencers and promotions in schools. The key selling point was free chat and video calls with no ads, pop-ups, or subscription fees. The app also included features familiar to users of WeChat, the Chinese “super app,” such as in-app games, scanning “people nearby,” and a “moments” image-sharing platform. 

It’s possible to see why LetsChat must have seemed like a great idea. The app combined free chat and video calls with games and social media sharing in a market where social media use is extraordinarily popular in a market where the median age is just 19.4 years old. African users spend more than the global average of 2 hours and 26 minutes per day on social media, according to a Global Web Index survey from 2022. Nigerians are the continent’s most active users at 3 hours and 42 minutes per day, while those in South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya all spend more than three hours per day.

After an initial growth spurt in user numbers, LetsChat’s expansion stagnated. Nine months after launch, the app’s average monthly users peaked at 440,000. Downloads dropped by 30% in 2022, and by February this year, monthly users cratered to just 83,412 — a mere speck compared to Facebook’s 170 million and Whatsapp’s 146 million users in Africa.

By the time LetsChat ended, it had accumulated seven million downloads on Google Play, with 82% of these in Nigeria and most of the rest in Mali, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.   

This vast gulf in user numbers illustrated LetsChat’s failure: It came late to Africa’s instant messaging party and failed to differentiate itself from its much larger competitors. The app also reportedly did not work very well. Users could make voice and video calls without using data, but some reported technical glitches, such as jamming calls and the sound cutting out. 

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? As not much more than was essentially a WhatsApp clone with a few added features, LetsChat never stood a chance in Africa, where WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger’s lead in instant messaging seems unassailable. Coming late to any party is never easy, especially if you are not offering something fundamentally different from the competition.    

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