Kenyan Publishers Call for Zero VAT on Books

In News by Dennis Abrams

The Kenyan Publishers Association voices its frustration with Nairobi’s book tax, rare in Africa. Those punished by it, they say, are public school students.

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

10 Million Children Are at a Learning Disadvantage’

KenyaReporting for Kenya’s Standard Digital News, Lee Mwiti writes that local publishers “have renewed their appeal to the government to scrap the 16-percent value-added tax (VAT) charged on books.”

At a news conference held in Nairobi, publishers asked that Treasury Secretary Henry Rotich push for an amendment to 2013’s VAT act when the finance, planning and trade committee opens discussions on this year’s financial legislation.

Oxford University Press General Manager John Mwazemba is quoted by Mwiti, saying, “Cheap and affordable learning is a right that every Kenyan child should be accorded, as per the goals of Vision 2030.”

David Waweru, Chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association, says that as Kenyan law now stands, it is “lopsided,” and affecting the quality of learning.

David Waweru

David Waweru

“The bill seems to favor the middle and upper classes,” he says.

“For example, why is VAT not charged on parking fees, an elitist thing, while books that are needed by a majority of Kenyans are taxed?

“Only 200 Kenyan shillings (US$1.97) of the grant capitation funds,” he says, “is allocated for the purchase of textbooks and supplementary reading materials per child per year. Another 100 shillings is allocated for the purchase of teachers’ guides and reference materials. Subjecting this little amount to VAT means even fewer books to schools.”

Mwiti writes that the publishers want the law to ensure that books and other learning materials are made tax-exempt, along with “the raw materials that go into making books.” A part of the argument is that with the publishing industry in a recession for the past five years and sales down by as much as 36 percent annually, the VAT charge simply is making things worse.

With shrinking revenue, publishers say their companies are forced “to freeze hiring and are laying off workers.” The OUP’s Mwazemba, who is also the publishers association’s treasurer, observed that this year in addition, “ten leading bookshops have been forced to close shop.”

“It is a pity,” he tells Mwiti. “Kenyan children cannot enjoy books by homegrown writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, while these books are common and popular in neighboring East African countries where reading materials are zero-rated” for taxation.

The publishers’ group says that with the exceptions of Kenya and South Africa, learning materials across Africa are not subject to VAT.

“The practice all over Africa is that books are never taxed.” Waweru says, adding that the act favors private schools where parents can afford the books.

In addition, publishers argue that the VAT has helped foster piracy. “Bogus publishers are stealing copyright from legitimate writers and are publishing books cheaply,” their press statement says, “while avoiding the tax. This has seen new investors shun the industry,”

Publishers also have expressed concern at what they say is a failure by the country’s ministry of education to release the 1 billion Kenyan shillings (US$9.8 million) allocated to purchase books during the second term.

In May, Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i issued an “order for public schools to stop purchasing new books until a review is done on procurement guidelines.” And while the review was scheduled to be completed by June, the publishers say the government has yet to release the money.

“The lack of funds to purchase books in public schools means 10 million children are at a learning disadvantage as opposed to their counterparts in private schools,” Mwazemba says. “This will surely see performance in public schools decline.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.