This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on June 19, 2016
The informal economy has been a theme of mine this year and since the budget speech, even more so. The government seems to have caught on to the financial potential of tapping into this sector for revenue generation purposes, and understandably so. The informal economy is estimated to contribute to 34 to 35 percent to the country’s GDP and currently generates over 80 percent of jobs created in the country on an annual basis. My concern is that what will happen is a heavy handed reflex from government to over-regulate and intimidate informal economy players into paying taxes. I think this would be the wrong approach due to several reasons.
Firstly, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has already taken a step in the right direction by introducing itax and making it easier for individuals and businesses to pay taxes. As a result, some informal economy players who found the tax process too difficult to comply with voluntarily registered and started paying taxes. Another useful initiative the KRA is doing to facilitate tax compliance is working with county governments to recruit informal economy businesses who have established business premises such as in malls or office buildings, to pay taxes. To be clear, there is a difference between facilitating compliance and intimidating people and businesses into it. Thus I think the KRA should continue to focussing on facilitating tax compliance and scaling up their efforts on sensitising the general public on how to file taxes as well the benefits of doing so; benefits such as having a paper trail of tax compliance that make it easier for small businesses to qualify for financing or become suppliers for government contracts.
Secondly, there should be a distinct effort by government to improve the efficiency, productivity and profitability of the informal economy. As it stands, informality tends to overlap with poverty and low income. Due to the fact that it is often the poorly skilled who find themselves stuck in the informal economy as the qualifications for employment in the formal economy often serve as automatic disqualifiers, informal economy players need to be supported in building their ability to manage and scale up their businesses, as well as making their businesses more profitable. Therefore, government bodies should work with county governments to seek input from informal economy players on the factors they think constrain the growth of their informal businesses. There is already a sense that training in areas such as bookkeeping, business management, and market access strategies would be valuable for this sector. Thus rather than aiming to squeeze out as much as possible from a sector that is still largely defined by poverty, government should support informal businesses to become more profitable. This would likely then make more in the informal economy willing to pay their share of taxes because as it stands, most feel they are too broke to pay taxes as they are already struggling to get by.
Finally, the government should give tax amnesties to informal businesses that register and start the journey towards tax compliance. Government should give such business at least a three to five year tax amnesty period. The reason why this amnesty is so important is that it not only allows small businesses to develop the capacity to comply, it also provides a time period over which support to the informal businesses, such as that detailed above, can be deployed. This amnesty would also allow government to collect much needed information and data on the informal economy that can be used to better support the sector. Government could then, for example, use such data to establish realistic tax bands for small businesses.
In short, the informal economy is too valuable a sector of the economy to me intimidated out of existence or pushed further underground by threats of punishment for failure to comply with tax obligations. The priority should be for the KRA to continue facilitating tax compliance as other arms of government work to support players in the sector to become more profitable. Only then can a realistic conversation about more robust tax compliance occur.
Anzetse Were is a development economist, email@example.com