A woman from Ilalasimba, Tanzania captures a GPS point in the Mobile Application to Secure Tenure app. The U.S. Agency for International Development is piloting the MAST project in Tanzania to crowdsource land rights information at the village level using mobile technology. Photo by: Jeffrey Euwema / CIPA / The Cloudburst Group

A growing body of evidence suggests that secure rights to land and property have a powerful impact on enhancing food security, resilience, women’s empowerment, and our efforts to reduce extreme poverty. But in many countries, these rights are weak, unclear or unenforced — particularly for women and other vulnerable populations.

Insecure land rights act as a deterrent for productivity, economic growth and innovation. Without them, farmers are less likely to invest in and protect their land and natural resources. Weak tenure rights can cause and exacerbate conflict, and divert precious resources toward protecting property against unwanted intruders.

This is a problem that can, and is, being attacked from many angles: by changing laws, improving the policy environment, coordinating development programming, and, for the U.S. Agency for International Development, by using innovative technology to increase tenure security and the opportunities that come with it for women and men across the developing world.

A strong legal and policy framework is essential to protecting land and property rights, thereby giving people greater scope to pursue their goals and dreams while reducing extreme poverty and building more resilient societies. However, legal reform is not sufficient for truly secure rights to valuable land and resources, particularly as demand for those assets increases. These reforms must be operationalized and implemented. That often means identifying and registering rights, and enabling people and communities to make wise decisions about how to use land and natural resources.

Two new USAID-funded projects are doing this by leveraging the power of technology to share information to transform landscapes and lives.

In Tanzania, USAID is helping villagers use GPS-enabled mobile phones to map the boundaries of village farmland. Once these boundaries are identified, villagers validate the information in the presence of neighbors and local village officials, in an effort to reduce conflicts. Information about who has rights to the land is captured on an open source mobile application and this information is then validated, with a special emphasis on recognizing and recording women’s rights to land. Then the information is uploaded to a cloud-based database that can be accessed by local government officials to issue a certificate to villagers recognizing their land rights.

By combining readily available and relatively low-cost devices with local knowledge and efforts, families can work with government officials to secure their most important asset: their land. Because the process relies on local people, local knowledge and a collaborative process, it can save time and money: Villagers do some of the work that government surveyors and land officials would otherwise do.

With their lands mapped and their rights secured, farmers have part of what they need to be more productive. But like millions of smallholder farmers around the world, these villagers would benefit tremendously from having better, faster and cheaper access to information about the quality and potential of their soil. With this kind of information they can figure out if they should plant maize or sorghum, tomatoes or cassava, onions or eggplant, where to plant and when to maximize production and minimize risk.

Another project, funded by USAID and implemented through U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, is providing farmers with open source mobile applications that can help them capture, store and share information about their land. This information will eventually help farmers, herders and others manage their lands more effectively. The project helps farmers describe the soils, topography and land cover of their fields or pastures, and connects them to models and databases that bring cutting-edge scientific information literally to their fingertips. This project is being piloted in Kenya and Namibia and holds real promise to put invaluable knowledge and power into the hands of farmers and land managers.

Using innovative technologies and approaches that share information and empower local people as problem solvers, USAID is helping to demonstrate how more secure land and resource rights can indeed promote shared prosperity.

To read additional content on land and property rights, go to Focus On: Land Matters in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

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About the author

  • Heath Cosgrove

    Heath Cosgrove is the director of USAID's Land Tenure and Resource Management Office and a USAID foreign service officer currently working in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for the agency's global advisory and learning services that advance poverty-reducing principles for inclusive economic growth and good governance through improving land and resource governance and strengthening property rights. Throughout his career he has worked in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.