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Scrap VAT on books to boost literacy

Wednesday May 3 2017

A trader selling second hand books to parents along the Makadara Road, Mombasa, on January 4, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A trader selling second hand books to parents along the Makadara Road, Mombasa, on January 4, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Books are the engines of knowledge acquisition and transfer.

The digital economy that the government has been hyping will depend on the flourishing of books.

However, this year’s National Budget was silent on the issue of Value Added Tax (VAT) on books.

The circulation of books is quite sensitive to price, making them especially vulnerable to VAT.

National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich has been lauded for zero-rating VAT on maize flour and bread, and expanding the tax bands by 10 per cent and personal relief by 10 per cent to ease the burden on low-income earners.



The tourism sector, for the second year running, received a boost with the exemption of VAT for local tourist vehicle assemblers.

In the 2016 Budget, park entry fees were exempted from VAT.

Also granted VAT exemption in this year’s Budget are pesticides, medical equipment and apparatus, and fishing.

Taxing books, as happened with the enactment of VAT Act 2013, restricts their circulation.

While this should be of concern to every Kenyan as we try to bridge the knowledge deficit and maintain a competitive advantage, it doesn’t seem to prick the conscience of our policy and lawmakers.


Publishers have argued that a zero VAT rate on books is the best way to support reading, education and a thriving knowledge economy.

It will show the government’s support for reading and writing, an area in which many children score poorly as confirmed in research findings by Uwezo, an initiative aimed at improving literacy and numeracy.

A key goal of the Ministry of Education is to offer quality education to the 12.5 million children in basic education.

Limiting access to learning materials through VAT compromises the quality of education, and undermines the country’s economic development agenda and the objectives of Vision 2030, as education is the backbone of any economy.

Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i has proved to be a man on a mission.


His credentials as a visionary leader have demonstrated by the far-reaching reforms he has undertaken in the education sector in just under 15 months.

While corrupt cartels in the book supply chain have rightly been blamed for the fiasco, VAT on books is equally to blame.

The government invests only Sh200 per child per year for textbooks and supplementary reading materials and a further Sh100 for teachers’ guides and reference materials.

Why, pray, would government tax this amount? It is a case of giving little with one hand and taking it away with the other.

Dr Matiang’i should make zero-rating of books the next mission in his reform agenda.

A zero-rate VAT on books has a direct impact on the price paid for a book. It is one of the most effective ways of promoting a book culture, literacy and reading.


It will also guarantee creativity and knowledge. Given its position at the nexus of art and commerce, of education and entertainment, the publishing industry enriches culture and drives economic growth, both through its own works and those it inspires in other creative sectors such as theatre, cinema, television and music.

A zero-rate VAT on books will secure the national publishing industry with more employment and viable small and medium-sized companies.

It also provides an effective way of supporting the entire publishing chain, from author through to bookshops and libraries.

Publishers become final consumers and cannot claim a VAT refund on the goods or services needed to produce books.

In order to promote a knowledge economy, encourage reading, and bolster lifelong learning, Parliament should amend the Finance Bill 2017 to include books in the list of zero- rated items.

The poor will not only be glad to have cheaper ugali to feed their bodies, but also books to feed their minds.

Mr Waweru is the CEO, WordAlive Publishers. [email protected]