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Ideas & Debate

Is Kenya ready to tax the digital economies?

Early impacts of the tech disruption include the fact that Uber has become the largest taxi company. PHOTO | FILE
Early impacts of the tech disruption include the fact that Uber has become the largest taxi company. PHOTO | FILE 

Whatever direction one looks, there are signs that the fourth industrial revolution is here with us.

This revolution, popularly referred to as the Internet of Things (IOT), has and will continue to change how we live and conduct business. There is no sector of the economy that will remain undisrupted in the next few years.

Some of its early impacts have been seen in the fact that Amazon is now the world’s biggest retailer, Uber has become the largest taxi company, Airbnb has become the largest accommodation provider, Instagram is the most valuable photo company, FinTech companies are disrupting the banking industry and the list goes on.

Essentially, these are companies using technology platforms to disrupt the old way of doing business. All these companies do business in Kenya — that is, they have customers in Kenya. So how do you tax the income that these businesses derive from Kenya?

Tax authorities are not ready to tax digital economies

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We have all witnessed the struggles of the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) in its endeavours to tax landlords and property owners. These are taxpayers who own physical property that can be spotted from space.

You can only imagine their struggles in taxing a technology company that does not even have legal presence in Kenya, let alone a physical one.

In a past conference in Nigeria, I posed a question to the tax authority on how they plan to tax digital/tech companies. The panellist was honest enough to say that they want to first concentrate on what they can see with their eyes then they try the digital economy.

I do not think the panellist had an idea how big the digital economy would be in a few years later.

He did not imagine that in two years the taxi business would be controlled by a tech company that he cannot see. He wanted to focus on the yellow cab persons who are now being run out of business by the taxi-hailing app companies.

He also did not expect the service sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Nigeria to jump from 29 per cent (2013) to about 56 per cent (2015).

Similarly, the contribution of the information, communication and technology (ICT) to GDP has increased from six per cent in 2012 to about 12 per cent in 2016, which translates to about $57 billion (Sh5.8 trillion).

The significance of the digital economy’s contribution to Kenya’s economy

The service sector’s contribution to Kenya’s GDP in 2015 was about 50 per cent. The value of output of the ICT sector is expected to grow to Sh100 billion this year. This is expected to be one of the biggest drivers of the country’s economic growth in the coming years.

Therefore, it should be expected that there are adequate changes in the laws, including tax laws to support this sector.

Kenya’s Silicon Savannah plans

Kenya has plans in motion to be the Silicon Valley of Africa, dubbed the Silicon Savannah. The plans are commendable and would contribute significantly to the economy of the country.

The tax revenues potential, which are a significant part of such contributions, cannot be realised without tax laws that are up to date. Kenya will be sending the KRA to a guns and machines war, only armed with bows and arrows.

We all know how that will end. The KRA will lose badly as it did in a recent case against one of the international taxi-hailing app company.

Let’s not spend billions of shillings to build tech cities like Konza but fail to reap the fair benefits because we failed to pay attention to a critical component — modernisation of our tax laws.

Developed countries’ actions on taxation of digital economies

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and G20, basically the majority of developed countries, realised that they were losing billions of dollars in revenue to the big tech companies because of inadequacies in their tax legislation.

These countries made taxation of digital economies part of Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, a project that has come up with recommendations for curbing profit shifting and base erosion. The recommendations contained in the report are adequate for us to adopt.

However, they say, ‘do not copy when you cannot paste’. So, does Kenya appreciate the problem well enough to implement these recommendations in our tax laws?

What Kenya needs to do

We are lucky that others have already done the hard work for us. Many countries have been victims of the complexity of taxation of digital economies and have managed to amend their legislation to seal the loopholes.

We only need to research on the solutions developed by these countries to be able to come up with our own.

BEPS action plan on taxation of digital economies has extensive recommendations on how to tackle the complexity of taxing digital economies.

Kenya should put in place a team to review all the recommendations of BEPS to come up with the relevant ones that we can adopt. We can make relevant changes through enactment of specific laws to effectively tax the digital economies.

Alternatively, we can overhaul the Kenyan tax laws to reflect the current nature of modern economies.

For example, the current review of the income tax laws should include specific provisions for effective taxation of the digital economy.

The ball lies with the policy makers at the Treasury and in Parliament.

Mutuku works with Taxwise Africa Consulting LLP. [email protected]

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