Letter from Africa: why the Kenyan tax authorities are eyeing social networks

A woman running on a beach in Diani, Kenya – generic photo

In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communications trainer Joseph Warungu examines why TBEN is wary of what he posts on social media.

Short gray line of presentation

Imagine this: you are having a great Christmas vacation in a fabulous place abroad. You walk into a fancy restaurant and order an exquisite meal. And because you have a bunch of loyal social media followers, you decide to snap some awesome photos of the sumptuous meal and share them.

How else would people know that you ate food that your comrades in the village have never seen in their lives and whose name you cannot even pronounce?

And when you click “Share”, the immediate reaction is, “Oooh, mmh, cool! Look at you ! Wow! This is quickly followed by cute comments on how they’d like to be there.

But in Kenya now there is another hidden tracker, which tracks every step you take, every photo you post, every meal you eat, every car you display, every house you show.

This faithful follower is the taxman.

You see, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has confirmed that it uses communication technology to enforce tax compliance.

This includes blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data mining technologies.

The camera doesn’t lie

“KRA has a dedicated team whose job, in addition to other intelligence-based risk analyzes, is to examine the lifestyles of targeted taxpayers.

“This may in some cases involve checking the social media profiles of targeted individuals,” a KRA spokesperson admits to me.

“Isn’t that an invasion of people’s privacy? ” I ask.

“No,” the authority said: “The KRA does not infringe anyone’s right to privacy, because what it publishes is intended for viewing in public and on public social media.”

I decide to push the tax authorities even more.

How does the KRA balance a person’s lifestyle – as portrayed on social media – with their tax compliance? After all, the goods or goods they showcase online may not be their own.

Well, it turns out the IRS has a very effective media watch team scouring the landscape to see if what we’re posting doesn’t follow tax filing rules.

“KRA can then check whether the reported sources of income and the taxes paid correspond to the described lifestyle. Also note that KRA is authorized to access and exchange information with other government agencies through the multi-team framework. agencies. “

It sounds scary. In fact, when the KRA commissioner general said the authority was using technology for tax compliance monitoring, his clip went viral and TBEN went mad for declaring his wealth.

Business class or economy class?

And the tax authorities have noticed a change.

“There has been a steady increase in the number of individual taxpayers who have rushed to verify their tax compliance status. Recently, we have recorded an increase of more than 60% in the number of requests for tax compliance certificates filed on the online platform i-Tax. “

Once the initial shock of a curious taxman passed, TBEN sought relief by creating their own humorous media to explain what the taxman was doing.

One of the images that went viral was of a bird staring out the window of a mid-air plane and telling a stunned passenger, “Hey, I’m just checking to see if you’re sitting in business class or economy. . “

The message from the taxman, or rather the tax bird, is: “If you can afford business class, you can certainly afford to report a little more on your tax returns.

So what prompted the KRA to devise these ingenious methods to hunt tax evaders or those who are very conservative with the truth about tax filing?

Simply put, tax goals.

Since Kenya declared its first case of Covid-19 in March 2020, the country has increased its public debt by Kenyan shillings 1.42 trillion ($ 12.5 billion, £ 9.3 billion).

Part of the conditions attached to a recent $ 2.34 billion IMF loan to Kenya is for the country to increase its tax revenue – which is why tax authorities are hunting down TBEN online.

A high-level source told me that the government’s message to the KRA was simple: “You have to generate a lot more income by finding two million new taxpayers.

And, guess what is the best place to find these people – yes, you got it – on social media!

“So as I prepare to capture my great Christmas vacation moment on camera, rest assured I’ll be in an inexpensive T-shirt and jeans. »» Source: Joseph Warungu, Source Description: Media and communication trainer, Image: Joseph Warungu

The tax authorities immediately got to work and exceeded expectations. In an October statement, the KRA said it exceeded its first-quarter revenue collection targets by $ 132 billion.

He admitted to having received quite a bit of help online.

“TBEN on Twitter (KoT), among other online content creators who have actively conceptualized spiritual content about KRA’s engagements with taxpayers, is positively influencing tax compliance awareness. “

As I prepare to capture my big Christmas vacation moment on camera, rest assured I’ll be wearing an inexpensive t-shirt and jeans, my rugged face framed against a dented bike.

I don’t want to give the IRS any excuse for making this call.

More letters from Africa:

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Composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.

Composite image showing the TBEN Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.

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