Few development challenges in Africa are as pressing and controversial as land ownership and its persistent gap between rich and poor communities.
With a profound demographic shift in Africa from rural areas to the cities where half of all Africans will live by 2050, these gaps will become steadily more pronounced as governments and communities rise to the challenge of growing enough affordable nutritious food for all families to thrive on the continent.
In some countries in the region, these gaps—allied as they are with high poverty rates and large-scale unemployment—have become sufficiently wide to undermine shared growth and social cohesion.
Women are especially vulnerable. They make up 70 percent of Africa’s farmers 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 improve their small harvests or to raise living standards. This injurious legacy perpetuates poverty and blights the lives of women who are the backbone of Africa’s farming, present and future.
Many countries around the world have grappled with the challenge of landlessness and inequality of land ownership. However, in Africa, which has 202 million hectares or half the world’s total holdings of useable uncultivated fertile land, it is accentuated by extremely low agricultural productivity—only 25 percent of potential.
Despite this abundant land and mineral wealth, much of Africa remains poor and too few countries have been able to translate their rapid economic growth into significantly less poverty and more opportunity.
A timely 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.
For example, 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. Again these consequences fall hardest on women farmers who are often the only breadwinners in their families.
Undocumented land is also a problem in Africa’s cities, now increasingly the destination for millions of former rural dwellers. The inhabitants of Africa’s booming cities need secure access to land to live 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 revolutionized 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 ten steps that may help to revolutionize 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.
Surges in commodity prices and foreign direct investment have increased the potential return on investment in land administration. We must match the evidence in this report with the political will and leadership to transform African agriculture and Africa’s development prospects.
The opportunity to resolve the continent’s long-running struggle with land ownership and productivity has never been better. The time for action is now.
Makhtar Diop is the World Bank Group’s Vice President for Africa