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Proposed taxation of prepaid airtime in Kenya criticised

Kenya , 23 Jul 2014

Proposed taxation of prepaid airtime in Kenya criticised

A call to tax prepaid airtime in Kenya to raise revenues for free high school education has been criticised by experts.

Earlier this month, a task force led by former Kenyan assistant minister Kilemi Mwiria proposed that government could raise billions of shillings if education levies are charged on items such as mobile airtime and fuel.

Kenya has one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world with user numbers having surpassed 30 million, according to the country’s telecoms regulator.

According to a report from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) earlier this year, prepaid subscriptions also account for over 98% of the country’s total mobile user base.

“We recommend that levies on airtime, fares and fuel be introduced as part of raising funds for free secondary school education,” read part of the report by the task force.

Kenya has set 2017 as a target date for free secondary education in the country.

But Dorothy Mwikali, a financial advisory expert at investments firm Baobab Capital, said that government should not adopt the proposal, as mobile airtime is a key economic driver in the country.

A report released by the International Data Corporation (IDC) this week has highlighted how information and communications technology (ICT) spending in Kenya has grown from 8.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 to 12.1% in 2013.

The IDC says the growth in mobile subscriptions from 15,000 in 1999 to over 30 million this year has been a vital driver in ICT’s growing contribution to Kenya’s economy.

The growth in Kenya’s mobile market has also been criticised.

Youth Education Network programme assistant, Pauline Nderi, claimed earlier this year that Kenya’s low income earners, also called the ‘base of the pyramid’, are over-spending on mobile services.

Nderi claimed a low-income Kenyan could spend an average of Ksh 50 on a daily basis, amounting to Ksh 1,500 per month on prepaid airtime. This in turn is Ksh 500 more than the basic postpaid service on offer from most operators, said Nderi.

However, Mwikali maintains that taxing prepaid services could add a further burden to already stretched low-income Kenyans.

“Recent reports showed that there are Kenyans who are forgoing at least one meal, just to be able to save and have enough to purchase airtime. These same people rely on mobile phones to conduct their small businesses and we won’t be doing them any better if we make them spend more on airtime,” Mwikali told ITWeb Africa.

“I think it would be better for the government to look for other alternative sources to fund this equally important sector (education sector) to the development of the country, without necessarily causing a major negative financial shift for those at the base of the pyramid,” Mwikali added.

Mwikali has advised that government must look to other alternatives to fund the secondary school plan.

“Technology is playing an important economic role in Kenya, and airtime and therefore mobile phones, are at the epicentre of all this. I think there is still a lot of potential in this sector, and the government could adopt an incentive model that will enable businesses in technology arena nurtured,” said Mwikali.

“Within three years, the positive effects will be felt through the billions of shillings to be raised through income tax. I find that to be a much more sustainable model as compared to taxation of airtime,” added Mwikali.

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