In Ghana, a for-profit firm called LandMapp is “unlocking land’s value” by helping to secure farmer’s unofficial land rights. These farmers may have customary or traditional rights to their land, but in many cases these rights are not formally recognized.

The company uses GPS-enabled smart phones to map the boundaries of farmers’ plots. They verify boundary information with farmers and their neighbors, and then they provide farmers with documentation, at relatively low cost, of their land holdings.

With this verified and accurate information, farmers may be better able to access credit or contract with commodity firms to provide cacao or shea nuts. LandMapp is trying hard to do what African governments have difficulty doing: providing dependable mapping and surveying services and evidence of legitimate land rights claims at a reasonable cost to families and communities.

Property Rights in Africa

In my last post, I talked about how, by devolving rights to manage and benefit from wildlife to historically disadvantaged black communities, the government of Namibia helped to increase wildlife numbers while simultaneously promoting economic development and new job opportunities for people living in rural areas.
By providing local people with secure property rights to wildlife, the government created positive incentives to protect and conserve animals. It also created incentives for local people to think entrepreneurially about how to benefit from the presence of these animals. Some communities enter into joint ventures with tourism companies to build lodges that earn income; others may allow limited trophy hunting. Namibia’s approach to wildlife has resulted in important environmental and economic gains.

Imagine, then, how this kind of approach could help to improve economic outcomes for people across Africa. What if local people had secure rights to manage and benefit from the use of forests, or pastures, or farmland? What kind of entrepreneurial activities would we see?

The Tragedy of the African Forest Commons

Unfortunately for Africans, these kinds of experiments are limited. By some estimates, nearly 98% of African forests are owned by the state. Although locals may have informal rights to forests and forest products, these weak and unenforceable rights mean that  forests become de facto “open access” resources — free for all to use and misuse because governments have such limited capacity to monitor who may enter and withdraw timber, plants, bush meat, honey, and other forest materials. Local people have fewer incentives to conserve and protect forests than they would, either as individuals or as communities, if they were legally empowered to manage and benefit from the use of forests.

Few African countries have devolved secure rights to manage forests to local people.

Some countries have adopted community-based forest management practices and, depending on the specific institutional arrangements, this approach can help reduce deforestation rates and generate income. But to date, few African countries have devolved secure rights to manage forests to local people; top-down management strategies remain the favored approach.

The problem isn’t confined to forests: across Africa, a majority of governments legally own the surface land. But while governments may legally own the land (and the water and the forests and all the subsurface wealth), many rural people hold traditional, customary rights to this land. In practice, this means that many communities have chiefs or other traditional leaders who are responsible for allocating land-use rights to clan or tribal members as well as to newcomers (migrants) or to groups that use land seasonally (pastoralists).

Bottom-up and Entrepreneurial Solutions

These customary or communal systems of land holding have evolved over time and are fairly flexible — often adapting to rising population pressure or to the discovery of valuable resources. Not surprisingly, they differ from country to country and from region to region (and even from village to village). More problematic is that they exist alongside, and often compete with, the formal government system of land ownership.

Many people living in rural areas have insecure property rights.

In fact, perhaps as much as 60% of the land in sub-Saharan Africa is held under these customary rules. Customary lands typically are not accurately mapped, and rights to these lands typically are not registered with the government, even though many African countries do have laws that allow for this (many people with customary rights choose not to register their claims because the process is too expensive and complicated). As a result, many people living in rural areas have insecure property rights in their land. This insecurity means they are less likely to invest to improve agricultural productivity, they can be thrown off land by more powerful people, and they are often in conflict with others — and sometimes that conflict is violent.
So, it is encouraging to see how private-sector solutions and including technology can help to address some of these problems. It’s not clear yet how scalable LandMapp is, or how applicable this approach will be in an environment where farmers grow maize (a subsistence crop) rather than cacao (a cash crop). But it certainly is encouraging that entrepreneurs are trying to solve this pervasive problem and bring the benefits of secure property rights to the millions of rural Africans whose land rights remain undocumented and at risk.