Have you ever tried to buy land in Africa? It can be a tiresome experience, with so many channels to pass through, and often very expensive. Land has long been a sensitive issue across the country. In many communities there are land disputes that have been raging on for years. Land often belongs to traditional communities, or chieftaincies, rendering it very difficult at time to know who actually has a right to the land, and if it has actually been purchased correctly. In many instances, disputes about the borders of towns and villages, can also effect the ownership of land. In both Kenya and Ghana I saw walled off areas of land with “NOT FOR SALE” painted on the gates. A symptom of distrust in the land ownership system, with some trying to fraudulently sell land of others.
What happens to the new “owner” if one community sells land, that belongs to another community? In Ghana I have seen first hand the damage of land disputes, which can end up escalating to other issues. In one example, one community bailed a dangerous “fake pastor” who was charged with attempted murder of an alleged witch. (A lovely old lady from the community) The fake pastor subsequently skipped bail and was never brought to justice.
Long queues at offices, unnecessary bureaucracy, often put people off following correct procedures, going down fraudulent paths to secure land. The system can be confusing, and with so many people involved it is possible to for them to be tricked into paying a higher price for the procedure.
So, how can innovation and technology help Africa streamline this process and make it far more transparent. The continent has made a habit about ingeniously taking innovations, joining them together, and creating solutions for local problems. This is another case in which such a process could take place. With the development of blockchain technology in recent years, there is a way to record the ownership and change of ownership of land without complication and confusion.
Blockchain technology is a digital database, which is distributed across a network of computers. Records are encrypted, and because they are on many machines, it is free from human error, editing or removal. It is the same system that cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are built on. But in the case of ownership of land, which requires a huge database, it will not be as volatile as Bitcoin.
There would be clear documentation of land ownership, and transfer history, making it very difficult for fraud to exist. In 2017, Kenya started to run pilot projects and for both land ownership and educational records, which can also find themselves manipulated by corrupt officials, or sneaky fingered students.
One such case, Bitland, are doing exactly this in Ghana, and they are hoping to expand into Nigeria and Kenya. One issue with this system is agreeing who the land belongs to in the first place. Bitland try to combat this by going into the communities to work out exactly who owns the land, before inputting the data. They use a combination of GPS, Openmap, and other APIs to allow users to utilise their mobile device to enter a land survey.
With records distributed to all parties, and not just held in local land offices, and everyone able to see who owns, sells and divides land, the system will become far more transparent. Multiple land ownership deeds for the same plot would be a thing of the past. The technology has the potential to also be rolled out to other elements of property ownership. Gaining planning permission can also be a long drawn out process, open to corruption or who you know in the office. If blockchain technology can also be used within this process, so that everyone knows exactly what part of the process has been reached, it will make the process easier, faster, and make sure that less structures are built without permission. (Of which there are many!)
With trust in land ownership certificates crumbling, this technology could stop many disputes between communities, and therefore put a halt to many social disputes across the continent between individuals and local communities. Governments across Africa should look into creating their own land ownership blockchain systems in order clean up the system and stop disputes.
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