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Kenya's public debt and revenue: How the data almost tripped up a leading African publication

An article in the Africa edition of the Conversation, a platform that makes academic research more accessible, tackled Kenya’s revenue crisis. But it wasn’t entirely on the money.

This article is more than 11 months old

  • Of the five claims we checked, one was outright incorrect when we consulted the latest available data. The Conversation got the country’s current overall debt wrong by at least US$13 billion. 

  • For the claim that almost half of Kenya's debt is owed to foreign interests, a chain of sources led us to the Business Daily. The data here is shaky, but the claim is still largely correct.

  • The article is correct about the country's total debt relative to gross domestic product, but it underplays former president Mwai Kibaki's record in raising tax revenues when he was in power.

Kenya's troubled economy continues to dominate public debate as the country considers its way out of the crisis.

In March 2023, one regional publication, the East African, cited rising inflation and interest rates, falling revenues and foreign exchange reserves, a depreciating local currency and mounting debt as some of the “flashing red lights”.

While using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to monitor the debate recently, we were struck by claims made in an article republished in the Star, a Kenyan newspaper. The report offered Kenyan president William Ruto advice on how to raise more tax revenue and reduce borrowing.

The article was first published on 8 February by the Africa edition of The Conversation, a not-for-profit online platform that seeks to make academic research and knowledge accessible to the wider public.

The article made a number of claims, including about Kenya’s debt, the pace of economic growth and the growth of tax revenues. 

We checked five of them for accuracy.

Claim

“Kenya’s current overall debt stands at US$87.4 billion.”

Verdict

Incorrect

To support this claim, the Conversation’s article first linked to another Star article published on 3 January.

The Star article quoted a quarterly balance of payments report published by Kenya's national statistics office in December 2022.

However, the report does not give details of the country's total debt. It shows the external debt owed to foreign creditors, including countries, financial institutions, individuals and multilateral organisations, up to 30 September 2022.

The Star story, however, said the total debt was rallying “towards the KSh9 trillion mark” but it did not provide a source for this information.

The Conversation told Africa Check that the debt figures were taken from a story published in the Business Daily, a Kenyan newspaper, on 5 January. 

This story put Kenya’s total debt at KSh8.7 trillion as at 30 September 2022, and said that the data came from the Central Bank of Kenya's monthly economic updates. We found this figure in the bank’s November 2022 update.

(Note: The Conversation Africa has since changed its link from the Star article to the central bank’s November 2022 economic update.)  

In September 2022, the average exchange rate was KSh120.42 per US dollar. Therefore, the KSh8.7 trillion is about $72.2 billion. The figure of $87.4 billion in the claim is off by at least $15 billion. 

What is Kenya’s debt now?

The best source of up-to-date data on current debt levels is the national treasury, John Kinuthia told Africa Check. He is a senior programme officer at the Kenya office of the International Budget Partnership, a global budget transparency organisation.

He referred us to the treasury’s latest economic and budgetary review report. It was published in  February 2023 and has data up to 31 December 2022. The report shows that debt was provisionally estimated at KSh9.15 trillion. 

Central bank data also put the total debt at KSh9.15 trillion as of 31 December 2022. According to the banking regulator, the US dollar exchanged at an average rate of KSh122.93 during the month of December. 

This puts the total debt at $74.4 billion – again billions off the original claim.

Claim

“Kenya’s current overall debt stands at … 62.3% of the GDP.”

Verdict

Correct

The Business Daily news story of 5 January 2023 is again the source of the 62.3% figure in this claim, but the article did not say where its gross domestic product (GDP) data came from.

A country’s GDP is a measure of the size of its economy.

Kenyan law requires the annual publication of details of the country's debt. 

The 2023 debt strategy published by the treasury in February puts public debt at 60% of GDP.

The plan also showed that total debt stood at 67% of the nominal GDP in December 2022. Nominal GDP measures the output of the country’s economy at current prices. In other words, it is not adjusted for inflation or the sustained increase in price levels.

The treasury said its figures were based on a debt sustainability analysis carried out with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This  was published in December.   

The resulting report showed that public debt as a percentage of GDP was projected to be 62% in 2022 and 60.4% in 2023.

“The public debt is expected to peak at 67.6% of GDP in the financial year 2022/23 (62% of GDP in present value (PV) terms),” the report said

The figures in the Conversation article are supported by publicly available evidence. We therefore rate the claim as correct.

Claim

“Almost half of Kenya’s debt, 49.8% ($47.2 billion) is owed to foreign interests.”

Verdict

Mostly Correct

As its source, the Conversation linked to the Business Daily article, which referred to central bank data as at September 2022. The article put external debt at KSh4.35 trillion.

However, this figure is closer to the October figure (KSh4.36 trillion) than the September figure (KSh4.3 trillion).   

At an average exchange rate of KSh120.42 to the dollar in October, the external debt was $36.2 billion, not $47.2 billion.

As a percentage of the total debt of KSh8.7 trillion, it was 50.1%. 

But if September 2022 figures are used, external debt is 49.8% of Kenya’s public debt. It is apparent the Business Daily used inaccurate data but in general the claim is almost on the money. 

Where are we now?

The latest data from the central bank puts the country's total debt at KSh9.15 trillion or $74.4 billion as at 31 December 2022. (Note: The average exchange rate in December was KSh122.93 to the dollar).

The external debt stood at KSh4.67 trillion or $38 billion. This is owed to countries, multilateral financial institutions and commercial banks.

As a percentage of total debt, the central bank calculated it at 51.1%, or more than half.

Claim

“Former president Mwai Kibaki raised GDP growth to 7%.”

Verdict

Correct

To increase tax revenues, president Ruto should “focus on accelerating economic growth”, the Conversation article said. “That is how former president Mwai Kibaki – who raised GDP growth to 7% – managed to triple tax revenues,” it added.

Kibaki served as president from December 2002 to April 2013.

Benjamin Muchiri, a senior manager at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, told Africa Check that data on historical GDP growth could be found in the bureau’s annual economic surveys and central bank data. 

The World Bank’s data portal was also a good source, he said, as it was compiled from member countries’s national accounts.

The statistics bureau put GDP growth at 0.4% in 2002. The Central Bank of Kenya and the World Bank put it at 0.5%.

The bureau’s data shows that growth peaked at 7% in 2007. The central bank recorded 6.9%, as did the World Bank. In 2010, the central bank and the World Bank said the economy grew by 8.1%. However, the statistics office put the growth at 8.4%.

This claim is supported by the available data.

Claim

“Kibaki … managed to triple tax revenues from $2 billion in 2002 to$6 billion by 2011.”

Verdict

Understated

The Conversation told Africa Check that this data came from an article published in the Standard, a Kenyan daily newspaper, on 1 January 2012.

“Kibaki has presided over a period in which revenue collection has tripled from KSh200 billion in 2002 to KSh600 billion last year [2011],” the now paywalled news story said. 

The article does not cite the source of the data, but the Conversation said it came from the Kenya Revenue Authority, the country’s tax agency. 

Kibaki was inaugurated on 30 December 2002, midway through the 2002/03 financial year. The financial year in Kenya runs from 1 July to 30 June.

Revenue for the 2001/02  financial year was KSh187.9 billion, and KSh205.7 billion for the 2002/03 financial year.

In 2001, the average exchange rate was KSh78.56 to the dollar, rising to KSh78.75 in 2002 before falling to KSh75.94 in 2003. The average for the three years is KSh77.75 to the dollar. The average revenue for the 2001/02 and 2002/03 financial years is KSh196.8 billion. This is equivalent to $2.53 billion. 

In the 2010/11 financial year, revenue totalled KSh651.4 billion, rising to KSh725.5 billion in 2011/12. The average revenue for the two financial years is KSh688.5 billion.

The average exchange rate in 2010 was KSh79.23, rising to KSh88.81 in 2011 and falling to KSh84.53 in 2012. At an average exchange rate of KSh84.19 per dollar, the average of KSh688.5 billion is equivalent to $8.2 billion.

The data shows that revenue has more than tripled whether expressed in Kenyan shillings or US dollars. However, the conversion of US dollars in the 2011/12 period is not $6 billion as claimed, but $8.2 billion – more than four times more.

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