The United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) defines electronic commerce (e-commerce) as “commercial activities conducted through an exchange of information generated, stored or communicated by electronic optical or analogs means…

With e-commerce now accounting for 80 percent of all global commerce[1], there is an urgent need to regulate these transactions to meet tax policy objectives of broadening the tax base and eliminating erosion. Taxing e-commerce will ensure equal treatment of national production and imports of the same product in order to avoid market distortion. The lack of a standard legal framework can lead to double taxation or double non-taxation; and different regimes for taxation of electronic goods sold electronically and sales of national products in the non-electronic market can distort overall market equity.

The main question revolving around the taxation of e-commerce business transactions is how to establish a general policy for e-commerce and specific tax regimes to ensure no loss of revenue in duties and taxes, including regulation of the market share between electronic imports and local production.

Fragmentation of business activities should derivate from the original definition of e-commerce, with an increased use of the internet to facilitate transactions involving the production, distribution, sale, and delivery of goods and services in the marketplace. To achieve a straightforward and undistorted tax policy, this needs to be complemented by an agreed categorization of goods and services involved in e-commerce transactions to determine which goods and services are targeted by the law and which are not.

African countries have significantly lagged behind in the e-commerce technological revolution, due in large part to weak infrastructure, high cost of the internet, narrow coverage of the network (including the quality of internet service), and lack of electricity. In 2013, a study by the International Telecommunications Union reported that only 9.8% of the African market was using the internet,[2] and in 2014, Africa ranked next to last, with just 1.3% of global business-to-business e-commerce spending.[3]

The use of “mobile money” (payment services performed via a mobile device) is really the only e-payment experience for goods and services across the continent. The challenge for African countries is to achieve a balance between expansion of financial services and taxation of small businesses that use mobile money.

African countries’ ability to benefit from e-commerce is dependent on the evolution of technology. The best African experience on innovation and technology was the launch of the Kenya pad for M-Pesa, a transformative mobile phone-based platform for money transfer and financial services in 2007. Since then, M-Pesa has experienced explosive growth — in 2013, 43% of Kenya´s GDP flowed through M-Pesa, with 237 million person-to-person transactions.

M-Pesa’s success is due in large part to the financial inclusion of a range of services, including money deposit and withdrawal, remittance delivery, bill payment, and micro-credit provision, thus allowing groups that typically have limited access to formal financial services to benefit from the financial services offered through M-Pesa.

While still a growing phenomenon in developing economies, mobile payments have been especially successful in markets where consumers without bank accounts have been able to take advantage of new mobile infrastructure to improve their financial standing.

At this stage, the main question for African countries is whether to expand their internet network and aim to tax e-commerce activities, or to invest their scarce resources to regulate the taxation of mobile money transactions (which are already thriving). The best approach should result in investment in both areas, taking into account an anticipated growth in e-commerce transactions in Africa that will accompany an increase in the African population (which, according to the United Nations, is expected to reach 2.4 billion by 2050).

Extensive future demand for e-commerce facilities in Africa is both a business opportunity and a great challenge for revenue authorities, who should develop appropriate taxation strategies in terms of investment and readiness.


[1] Clayton W.Chan  – Taxation of Global E-commerce on internet: underlining issues and proposed Plan

[2] The International Telecommunications Union statistics showing internet users by region as of July 1, 2013 give the market percentages as Asia (48.4%), America North and South (21.8%), Europe (19%), Africa (9.8%), and Oceania (3.0%).

[3] The Asia-Pacific region led the global business-to-business e-commerce spending with 39.6%, followed by Europe (29.2%); North America (26.9%); Latin America (1.9%); Other, including Africa (1.3%); and MENA (1.1%). Source: ©statista 2016 www.statista.com/statistics/518739/b2c-e-commerce

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