Curious to know what Big Brother Africa celebrity housemate Pokello Nare is up to? Maybe get confirmation on that “is she/isn’t she pregnant” story doing the rounds? You could follow her Twitter feed, which is regularly updated with shoe pics, or you could just ask her to phone you whenever she’s got something important to say.

And that’s considerably easier than it sounds. Pokello is one of 140 celebrities – mainly in east Africa – who use a very unique microblogging service called Instavoice.

Instavoice, developed by Kirusa, is a curious hybrid of Twitter, WhatsApp and voicemail which is bundled with smartphones by operators in 12 African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. And it’s just quirky and relevant enough that it might spread much further yet.

The heart of it

At its heart, Instavoice is an Android or iOS app which brings together SMS and voicemail in a single screen. When you miss a call or receive a voicemail, it appears as a chat dialogue from the relevant contact. Sound files are automatically downloaded to your phone over its data connection, so that you can play back the voice message just by tapping on it.

Like WhatsApp, you can also send voice messages by recording them in-app or using a push-to-talk feature. What’s more interesting about Instavoice, however, is the way it integrates with SMS and traditional voicemail too. Basically, if you’re an Airtel or MTN customer using Instavoice because it’s free on your network, you can still send messages – voice and text – to people who don’t have the app or are overseas or on a different network.

The messages appear as an SMS or voicemail on their handset, wherever they might be (accompanied with a prompt to download the app if they want, obviously).

One app fits all

Founder and CEO of Kirusa, Inderpal Mumick, says that the way Instavoice works when it’s not provided by a network operator is that users must set up call forwarding to redirect missed calls to Instavoice’s servers. That means there is likely to be a charge, however, and outgoing messages sent via SMS are also not free.

The upside is that it doesn’t matter whether the recipient is on a smartphone, featurephone or tablet – you can send messages back and forth from one app.

“It also means that if you’re travelling or using a second SIM, you can still get missed calls and voicemails from your main number,” says Mumick. That’s important, he says, because it means you don’t have to turn roaming on when you’re in another country to see who’s trying to call you: you can switch to – say – a Spanish SIM when in Spain and not worry about missing important calls.

You can also add more than one number to your account, so all messages to all your SIMs go into one mailbox. Like dual-SIM phones, it’s the kind of feature that’s not necessarily needed in the US or Europe but solves a big problem for African users.

More than messaging

So where does Pokello fit in? Like the Naspers-backed WeChat, the three-year-old Instavoice sees itself as more than just a messaging platform and is starting to add social networking features on the side. There’s sports news direct to your mailbox, for example, and one-on-one contact with celebs.

Instavoice is courting popular people like Pokello and Ghanaian movie star Yvonne Nelson to use its blogging feature, which gives them the ability to send out Twitter-like updates as voice or text messages, which are instantly received by all their fans. You can give feedback and reply – although it’s up to the celeb as to whether or not they read your words, obviously. In the web interface, replies from all users appear like Facebook threads, but on your phone you only see interactions between the celeb in question and you.

And, if you sign up to use the service from a feature phone, any voice blog the celeb records appears as a voicemail in your inbox – Mumick says many of those signed up are using their blogs to host giveaways and competitions to get people to sign up.

Four milllion fans

I’d be the first to say that the last thing the world needs is another messaging app, and I’m not much of a one for celeb news either, but Instavoice does seem to be successful in the countries where it operates (which include some non-African countries like Peru and India too). Mumick reckons there are four million fans following personalities already, for example.

More importantly, when it comes to travelling and voice messaging, it solves some problems that are unique to the continent, and if you’re on a network that supports it, you’re probably using it already without necessarily knowing as your main messaging app.

Mumick says that he is in talks with South African operators to bring the service here too, but there’s nothing confirmed as yet.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.