Taxing Mobile Phone Transactions in Africa: Lessons From Kenya

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The taxation on mobile phone-based transactions and on airtime has been introduced in Kenya and is spreading to other African countries. Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa view mobile phones as a booming sub-sector easy to tax due to the increasing turnover of transactions and the formal nature of such transactions by both formal and informal enterprises. The increasing tax burden on the sub-sector and the consumers, though, has raised concerns that the massive gains made in financial inclusion in developing countries made possible by retail electronic payments platform via mobile phone transactions may be reversed—resulting in a return to cash transactions.

This paper shows that taxation on mobile phone airtime and financial transactions may not expand the tax base significantly but, rather, may reverse the gains on retail electronic payments and financial inclusion. A higher tax rate on low-level retail electronic transactions mostly levied on low-income earners that are sensitive to transaction costs may discourage the use of mobile phone-based transactions, incentivizing them to revert to cash transactions to evade taxes and so less tax revenue. This trend will deal a big blow to the financial inclusion success witnessed so far.

The data so far available shows that the contribution of mobile money-related taxes is less than one percent of total tax revenue, a negligible contribution to Kenya’s total tax income, at high economic costs. These lessons are not just relevant for Kenya but also for other countries in Africa with such tax propositions. Introducing and increasing taxes on mobile phone transactions may risk stalling progress on digitization and fiscal policy design as well as revenue administration.

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