Securing Africa’s land for shared prosperity

The greatest development challenge facing sub-Saharan Africa today is lifting 400 million of its people out of extreme poverty. The continent has abundant land and mineral resources to meet the challenge, but only if land governance can be improved. A new study, ‘Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity’, offers a ten-point programme to improve land governance by accelerating policy reforms and boosting investments at a cost of US$4.5 billion over 10 years.

It provides practical steps to turn the hugely controversial subject of “land grabs” into a development opportunity by improving land governance, not only to reduce the risks of dispossessing small farmers and local communities but also to ensure mutually-beneficial deals for investors.

Improved land governance will empower small farmers to overcome the huge productivity gap due to low yields on currently used land while new investors can make responsible investments on currently unused land and become catalysts for commercialising Africa’s subsistence agriculture.

But significant challenges abound. For example, as much as 90% of rural land in sub-Saharan Africa is undocumented, making it highly vulnerable to land grabbing and expropriation without proper compensation. Reforms and investments are needed within 10 years to document all communal lands and prime individually-owned lands. Similarly, reforms and investments can help regularise tenure rights for squatters on public land in urban slums, which are home to 70% of urban dwellers in Africa. These urban dwellers live under constant fear of eviction. The second challenge is weak governance and corruption, which often favour continuation of the status quo, to the detriment of poor people. The third challenge is garnering the political will of African governments and the necessary support from the international development community to fulfil the task.

Despite these set of challenges, the opportunities for action have never been better. First, surging commodity prices and foreign direct investment have increased the prospect of solid returns on investment in land administration. Improved land administration means greater productivity, greater income and higher returns to investment. Second, the African Union has developed a Land Policy Framework that is being implemented. This African effort, together with global initiatives including the Principles for Responsible Agro-Investment and the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forestry, provide a shared, inclusive vision and a political springboard to boost the reform effort. Third, most African countries have basic land laws in place that recognise customary land rights and gender equality, providing the essential underpinnings to catalyse and sustain reforms. Fourth, new technologies, especially satellites and information and communications technology are helping, shaving costs and bringing the benefits of better land governance to more and more people.

Positive change is occurring, and African countries are in the driver’s seat. For example, Rwanda has completed a nation-wide programme to survey and register land at about $10 per parcel using an orthophoto map and locally trained parasurveyors. Tanzania has virtually completed surveying the boundaries of village communal lands and issued the village authorities with a title deed. Malawi has successfully piloted a willing buyer-willing seller approach to redistribute land to the poor with dramatic increases in farmer incomes. And at least 16 African countries have initiated programmes to computerise land registries and establish land information systems to increase efficiency and transparency.

Our research shows that Africa can realise the vast development promise of its land over the course of the next decade.

Some two weeks ago, I presented the ten point programme to the largest gathering of food and environmental scientists, private sector and civil society leaders at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) General Assembly in Accra. It was heartening to hear Minister Alhaji Inusah Fuseini, Ghanaian Minister of Land and Natural Resources say “… land alone contributes in excess of 75% of the GDP of the country. The manner in which we hold and manage land has strong implications for the success of our economy.” In a nutshell, in that statement lies the hope and the call for action and change.

The ten point programme offers what I believe is a useful roadmap that can stand the test of scrutiny by governments, business leaders, and civil society. It needs stakeholders to join hands so that we can put an end to the menace of land grabs and poverty in Africa once and for all.

Investment in land governance reforms will boost food supply, increase rural incomes, and more plentiful food means cheaper food prices in Africa’s bustling towns and cities benefiting poor people in urban areas who do not grow their food but purchase it. And the urban majority living in slums and poverty will sleep soundly without fear of eviction.

Better land governance will help to secure a brighter future for all Africans.

Frank Byamugisha is Lead Land Specialist for Africa at the World Bank.