IN DEVELOPED COUNTRIES, MOST PEOPLE TAKE FOR GRANTED CERTAIN basic public goods, such as clean drinking water, public education for children, and a tax collection system to finance public expenditures. By contrast, many developing countries lack the basic infrastructure of a modern state, such as a cadastre (land registration) system. Often, only a tiny portion of land parcels are mapped and official records consist solely of paper maps.
A cadastre is the core of a land administration system. It contains up-to-date information on each parcel, including a record of ownership and interests in the land, its value, and, usually, a geometric description. The first cadastral maps were found in Egypt, dating back to 3,000 BCE; the cadastral system was revolutionized in the 19th century by Napoleon. Beginning in the 1990s, radically new concepts were developed as to how to build cadastres and how to utilize them to improve land management, with a focus on sustainable economic development and the eradication of poverty.
Secure title to their land enables people to protect it from encroachment or outright theft and to use it as collateral to obtain loans. Modern, digital cadastres have played an important role in diminishing corrupt and non-transparent land management practices. Such systems also improve the structure and accessibility of records, facilitate knowledge-based decision making, and promote wider data dissemination.
For these reasons, international development agencies, the governments of industrialized countries, and private foundations have financed numerous projects to build cadastres in developing countries, increasingly relying on geographic information systems (GIS). However, in many countries, such systems are still woefully inadequate or entirely non-existent.
Samson Ngengi Njuguna
In one such country, Kenya, Samson Ngengi Njuguna, a revenue officer with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), has developed and tested a new GIS-based system to map rental properties and tie the information to other records about the properties, thereby enabling his agency to collect taxes that have never been paid before. See Figure 1. KRA is the main agency mandated to collect revenue on behalf of the government of Kenya. Njuguna’s core responsibility at KRA is to register and recruit taxpayers, as well as devise new and innovative ways of raising revenue.
Njuguna, now 30, was born as the fourth of 11 children in the western slopes of the Great Rift Valley in the Republic of Kenya. In the widespread ethnic violence that followed the 2007 election, more than a thousand Kenyans were murdered and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. "My father was murdered in cold blood alongside 13 other family members," he recalls. Yet he is involved in peace building as the Chairman of the National Youth Resource Centres, a youth empowerment organization in Kenya that works with young men and women at the grassroots level to carry out peace-related activities as a way of restoring stability in the community.
At Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi, Njuguna earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Geomatic Engineering and GIS. Later, during his two-year training as a revenue officer at the KRA Training Institute, he developed a GIS application called Geospatial Revenue Collection Information System (GEOCRIS) as an automated tool that would assist KRA to tap property-based taxes. He was then deployed to the Real Estate Tax Office to further develop the proposed system into a workable and scalable solution.
The main objective of his research, Njuguna later wrote in his business case for GEOCRIS, was "to demystify the use of GIS technology in revenue collection based on the premise that any taxpayer operates from a particular physical location (which has geospatial positional attributes) that can easily be defined, quantified, and integrated into computer-understandable format, whether those positions are static or mobile."
In 2012, he came to the United States, principally to study cadastre workflows and processes, so as to improve the efficiency of GEOCRIS, especially with regards to editing and processing information on land parcels. "A lot of research (on cadastres) has been conducted in the United States and there are numerous best practices from which to learn," he says. "Also, there are experts on cadastre systems whose input would prove valuable to the work we are doing in Kenya."
Worldwide, Njuguna explains, the rental property sector is notoriously difficult to tax, especially in developing countries. The bulk of housing is constructed outside of the formal process — i.e., without planning permission and without financing from banks or mortgage institutions. Few units are recorded with regulatory bodies, a small percentage of land is formally registered, and tenants are reluctant to report details about their landlords to the authorities. Therefore, accessing property information for taxation purposes is both difficult and expensive. Despite a recent building boom in Nairobi, tax collections have remained largely flat.
"We don’t have any reliable property tax collection system in Kenya," says Njuguna. "Everything is manual, on paper maps, which is a recipe for widespread corruption and inefficient service delivery. It is a sad situation that requires urgent remedial action. Information is power and lack of the same is definitely lack of power."
Moreover, data that may be used to improve the level of compliance are scattered among various arms of government, and there is no unifying database of any kind in place yet. For example, data on owners of all land parcels are held by the Ministry of Lands, while KRA is the custodian of PIN information and tax status of such owners. KRA does not receive copies of documents certifying the transfer of ownership of properties or parcels, so it has no way of knowing who sold which property or parcel to whom. "Even when equipped with the details of land ownership, it has not been easy for KRA officers to identify those plots that have been developed that may be subject to tax," Njuguna wrote.
Kenya faced the daunting task of devising technical, legal, and administrative means of raising tax compliance in this sector — thereby making resources available to improve the lives of millions of Kenyans. Njuguna took up the challenge of developing a technical solution and proposed a system that could drastically boost property tax collection. "I believe firmly that Kenyans can solve their own problems," he says.
GEOCRIS combines geospatial, mobile phone, and information technologies to optimize the collection of rental property income taxes and other taxes using a minimal staff. See Figure 2. It also assists the revenue authority to spot audit cases, while supplying it with key information about the targeted taxpayers.
The process involves mapping all the premises that generate rental income and entering them into a database. The activities and properties of the owners can then be tracked and a small number of revenue officers can follow up on non-compliant cases using GPS-enabled and Web-connected smartphones that synchronize with the system the attribute and location information that they collect in the field.
GEOCRIS, Njuguna explains, will enable the government of Kenya to identify tax defaulters and map the location of all of their properties. See Figure 3. It is a scalable solution, because it includes an interface that can be developed for use with other taxes without requiring a redesign of the entire system. Additionally, the mobile phone platform will make it easier for the KRA to monitor the integrity of revenue officers.
GEOCRIS consists of a desktop platform, a Web platform, and a mobile platform. See Figure 4. When fully functional, it is expected to support several business processes, including tracking the physical location of taxpayers, capturing taxpayer information, linking to pre-existing KRA systems, and allowing taxpayers to calculate and pay their taxes online or through their phones, and to file complaints.
According to Njuguna, the systems could raise the level of compliance from less than 2 percent currently to about 75 percent, thereby raising the revenue base by approximately 60 billion shillings from the current 1.5 billion shillings. "Tax compliance is a mandatory requirement for both natural and legal persons according to Kenya’s new constitution," he says. "This means that GEOCRIS operates within the law as a tool to enhance better governance in Kenya."
Digitizing the Maps
The Survey of Kenya is the government agency charged with demarcating boundaries and developing and maintaining the country’s land records. However, it has no automated cadastre.
In Kenya, cadastral maps are contained within development plans for towns and cities. Njuguna has been able to scan and digitize about 20,000 sheets of land parcels for the city of Nairobi and about 8,000 sheets for the city of Mombasa; he is currently working on the cities of Nakuru, Kisumu, and Thika — single-handedly taking a major step toward digitizing his country’s land records. This, he points out, proves that if the Government of Kenya were serious about automating its land information system, it would not be as Herculean a task as it has intimated. "GEOCRIS shows our government that the process is viable, but there is no good will to implement it," Njuguna says.
Implementing the System
The project is currently in the pilot phase but has already proved its significance by increasing revenue in the pilot area in Nairobi, according to Njuguna. See Figures 5-6. The Minister for Finance, in his annual budget speech to the National Assembly, declared that the government is ready to nationalize the concept, which is expected to revolutionize revenue collection in Kenya. Meanwhile, the KRA has been carrying out a massive marketing campaign in the national media.
Implementing a national system will take about one year, Njuguna says, because it will require creating an enterprise GIS, which entails conceptualizing many other factors, such as access and reliability of data from key government agencies.
Once digitized, the maps are published in a GIS. The second step involves cleaning the data and integrating them with the already published cadastre maps. The data are acquired from utility and water companies, the national company registration bureau, mobile phone service providers, and security agencies, among others. For instance, the more electric connections or water meters a property has, the higher the chance that it consists of rental units.
"We need to know where our people are and what they are doing, whether they are paying tax or not," says Njuguna. "Then we shall be able to quantify easily who makes how much money and where. Through the power of GIS technology, we are using different datasets to make sense of that information, which has never happened before in Kenya. Each government agency wants to hold on to its information and does not want to share it with other agencies. This is because the same information has always been used as an agent of corruption by the various parts of our government and there are managers who are hell bent to maintain the status quo."
Now, however, Kenya’s new constitution guarantees freedom to access government information and the KRA has legal authority to ask for any data that has revenue implications. "I have been able to prove to our government that by sharing information amongst the various agencies, we can greatly enhance service delivery to Kenya’s taxpayers," says Njuguna. He has written various technical documents and advisory notes to the KRA’s senior management meant to convince the government to adopt a geospatial system.
He was able to demonstrate his innovative system to review panels both within and outside Kenya and was awarded the first ever Innovation Award by the KRA in December 2011. GEOCRIS then won a Global Innovation Award for Kenya at the Annual Innovation Contest of the Inter-American Center of Tax Administrations. The initiative was cited as one of the three leading innovations undertaken by tax administrations in the previous year.
"Lack of records has been an obvious and endemic problem that has been created intentionally by the rich and mighty, as well as political leaders, in order for them to loot property and avoid paying taxes," says Njuguna. "I am working on this project so that we may enhance revenue collection. However, GEOCRIS is also going to bring sanity to our land administration processes and thus mitigate cases of dubious land dealings by closing the data gaps. Lack of proper land and property records is the main loophole through which the rich steal land from the poor. Of course, we recognize that the rich and mighty are going to resist and they have already started doing so by mounting road blocks to implementation of the system."
Despite this resistance and threats he claims to have received, Njuguna remains undaunted. "They may kill my body but not my soul," he says. "I am humbly requesting the entire GIS fraternity around the globe to assist in starting up a project of tapping talent of other geospatial change agents like myself, who are hidden from the world and are somewhere in Africa and beyond. These agents can play a crucial role in the development of Africa, since only Africans can liberate their continent, although with the support of development partners from all over the world."