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Poor land governance systems are one of the biggest challenges to African development, but the problem is not insurmountable. Makhtar Diop, the World Bank Group’s vice president for Africa, discusses ways to improve them.

Many countries around the world have grappled with the challenge of landlessness and inequality of land ownership. However, in Africa, which is home to 202 million hectares or half the world’s total holdings of useable uncultivated fertile land, that problem is accentuated by extremely low agricultural productivity, high rates of unemployment and inequality.    

Despite the continent’s abundant land and mineral wealth, much of Africa remains poor and too few countries have been able to translate their rapid economic growth into poverty reduction or job growth.

In fact, in some countries in the region, the gaps in land ownership between rich and poor have become sufficiently wide to undermine shared growth and social cohesion.

A new World Bank report — Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity: a Program to Scale Up Reforms and Investments — suggests that poor land governance, the system that determines and administers land rights, may lie at the root of this grievous problem.

The vast majority of African countries are using land administration systems they inherited at independence, along with survey and mapping techniques that are antiquated. Not surprisingly, only 10 percent of Africa’s rural land is registered. The remaining 90 percent is undocumented and informally administered, which makes it susceptible to land grabbing, expropriation without fair compensation, and corruption.

These consequences fall hardest on women farmers who are often the only breadwinners in their families. They make up 70 percent of Africa’s farming population and yet, for the most part, are locked out of land ownership by customary laws. Without a title to the land they farm, women are unable to raise the money needed to grow their small harvests or to improve living standards.

Undocumented land is also a problem in Africa’s cities, now increasingly the destination for millions of former rural dwellers. A profound demographic shift is underway in Africa from rural areas, and by 2050 half of the continent’s population will abide in cities. Under this trend of urban migration the issue of land ownership will become steadily more pronounced. Increasingly, the inhabitants of Africa’s booming cities will need secure access to land to live and raise crops legally without fear of eviction.

This is where scaled-up land registration combined with legal recognition of the rights of squatters on public lands, would greatly improve the lives of poor families and their ability to tend communal gardens, improve urban agriculture, and run profitable businesses.

Fortunately, there are successful examples worldwide of countries that have improved their land governance and revolutionised agriculture. For example, in 1978, China dismantled collective farms and used long-term leases to confer land rights on households, which launched an era of prolonged agricultural growth that transformed rural China and led to the largest reduction in poverty in history. In Argentina, Indonesia, and the Philippines, legal recognition of land rights for residents in slum areas have improved the quality of their housing and the value of their plots.

Based on such worldwide experience and encouraging evidence from country pilots in African countries such as Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda, this new report suggests a series of 10 steps that may help to revolutionise agricultural production and eradicate poverty in Africa. These steps include improving tenure security over individual and communal lands, increasing land access and tenure for poor and vulnerable families, resolving land disputes, managing better public land, and increasing efficiency and transparency in land administration services.

Although poor land governance is daunting, the problem is not insurmountable. The last decade has witnessed an increase in concerted efforts by African countries and development partners to undertake land policy reforms and to pilot innovative approaches to improve land governance. Many of these countries either have legislation in place or initiatives in progress to address communal land rights and gender equality, the basis for sound land administration.

Technology can also help. New satellite and information technologies can greatly reduce the cost of land administration. A growing number of African countries are now using these systems to reduce the costs of surveying and mapping land, and to computerise their land registries to improve efficiency and reduce corruption.  

Some 26 African countries have established at least one continuously operating reference station (CORS) and about 50 CORS are contributing data to the African geodetic reference system, which, once completed, will provide a uniform coordinate reference system across the continent.  

The time to resolve the continent’s long-running struggle with land ownership and productivity has never been better.  

Surges in commodity prices and foreign direct investment have increased the potential return on investment in land administration. We must match the evidence in our new land report with the political will and leadership to transform African agriculture and Africa’s development prospects. The time for action is now.

Makhtar Diop is the World Bank Group’s vice president for Africa

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