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Land reforms can heal old wounds and bring economic benefits

Thierry Hoza Ngoga
By Thierry Hoza Ngoga
Head of Country Support, AGRA

Thierry Hoza Ngoga is Head of Country Support at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Prior to this, he headed the Land Technical Operations Department in the Rwandan Natural Resources Authority, where he played a key role in leading the national land-tenure reform programme.

Posted on Wednesday, 3 April 2019 12:18

Future generations will reap the benefits of Rwanda's land registration programme. Antonin Borgeaud for JA.

The Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi resulted in the death of over 1 million people, and many other Rwandans fled their country.

This wholesale slaughter left many households headed by widows or orphaned children, and the destruction of infrastructure and severe depopulation crippled the economy. When it was over, Rwanda had to cope with a massive influx of returnees. This was the catalyst for a concerted effort to regenerate society.

Land has been central in the struggle for independence in all African countries; recently it has been a frequent cause of clashes between communities, fomenting internal strife. Land was even more important for returning Rwandans who found their former properties occupied by strangers; huge reforms were needed if the country stood any chance of healing its wounds. The story of Rwanda’s land registration project is a model for other nations. Rwanda remains the only country to have completed a systematic land registry exercise in fewer than five years.

  • Good land governance depends on the speed of registration after a sale, the ease and accuracy of searches, transparency and efficiency of land institutional services and the clarity of land-use regulations.
  • But the start must be a comprehensive land-ownership database. Rwanda registered 100% of all land at a cost of just $7 per plot. A phenomenal achievement, with many downstream advantages.

Agriculture accounts for a third of Rwanda’s GDP and nearly 70% of people are employed in the sector. In rural areas inheritance rights were traditionally informal: land passed under customary law from father to son. With only urban property governed by formal laws, 80% of court cases involved land disputes. After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi 90% of land in Rwanda was unregistered and mostly occupied by a series of informal agreements. The government began its Land Tenure Regularisation (LTR) reforms as a way to start the healing process, after extensive consultation with community groups and individuals, to “provide for full and equal rights to both wife and husband, and all children, through the systematic land registration process…”

From 2009 to 2013 eleven million parcels of land were registered, opening the way to use titles as collateral for investment capital. Government land revenues increased five-fold in just the two years between 2011 and 2013 and the World Bank has ranked Rwanda at number two in the world for ease of property registration, second only to New Zealand.

Rwanda is ranked number two in the world for ease of property registration, second only to New Zealand

The digitisation of data has been transformative. An SMS service allows enquiries about size, use and encumbrances, reducing costs and minimising the opportunity for fraud. The mortgage register is now web linked to the land register, allowing banks to verify ownership before approving a mortgage, and because each land parcel has a unique land-registry number it eliminates multiple applications by an owner. There is now a land-disputes database and a link is being developed to the e-courts system, giving judicial access to land-based disputes. The Rwanda Revenue Authority’s web link enables land tax to be better and more accurately collected; property tax is generally the highest local government revenue earner in developing countries and early indications are that 1% on land and property tax in Kigali could yield an estimated $60 million a year.

State land is also registered, reducing the chances of land-grabbing of unoccupied plots. There is a forestry cadastre documenting the size and location of both state-owned and privately owned woodland that will aid the government in its aim to have 30% tree coverage of the country by 2020. This will be integrated with a water-management system to enhance water catchment, and a mining cadastre identifies what minerals are where.

Women have traditionally had fewer land rights with formal laws, customs and the traditional division of labour all playing a part. For a long time, it was only possible to pass land down the male line and widows only had rights till their son came of age. Of the 11 million parcels of land registered so far, more have been to women than men. Over 2.1 million list a woman as the sole owner, while only 1.2 million list a man. A gratifying 5.6 million are registered jointly to men and women, demonstrating a fairer shared ownership than in years gone by.

Over 2.1 million parcels list a woman as the sole owner, while only 1.2 million list a man.

The poor are particularly vulnerable to the effects of weak land governance. Registration now successfully supports subsidised input programmes that have had little impact in the past because of logistical and accountability challenges. Now the Ministry of Agriculture distributes subsidised inputs using LTR results knowing exactly who owns the land and the size of the parcel. The digitised data also opens up the possibility of linking e-vouchers to the land registry and it is intended that soil type and quality will eventually be included.

The success of this project is down to political will, local pilot projects, consultation and technology, particularly the use of open-source software. Land is central to the achievement of many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The LTR increases investment and productivity, promotes equality and has any number of applications outside its central function. Other countries now have the opportunity to follow suit and realise the transformative difference a land registry of their own will make.

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