Blockchain systems can provide a trusted registry of property ownership in communal lands, which can facilitate their development into productive assets, says Zimbabwe former commercial farmer and former chairperson of the National Association of Dairy Farmers Dave Conolly.
Conolly is researching the titling of communal areas in Africa and believes it is essential for agricultural development that subsistence farmers working on communal lands are empowered to move into commercial agricultural production and capitalise on land ownership.
The overall aim is to demonstrate the productive potential of communal land and how ownership empowers people, says Conolly.
There is a set of business rights that is tied to land ownership, beyond legal access to the land, and it is necessary to reflect this as an asset to stimulate development, he explains.
However, a mistrusted land registry and frequent double sales of plots, and the resulting multiple, competing claims of ownership, mean that, even in cases where land has been given to communities, they are unable to leverage it legally as an asset and, therefore, very little, if any, investment is made in productive capacity either of the land or equipment.
The establishment of optimum plot sizes will vary depending on rainfall, irrigation potential and other local factors. For example, Conolly has been exploring the yield potential of each homestead in a community that has legal access to 3 ha of cropping lands, as well as 7 ha of grazing land.
In a relatively dry area, each hectare could produce 480 t of tomatoes a year under irrigation and the fresh produce could also be sold into the local and international markets. Greenhouses can be constructed to produce more intensive or higher-value crops, avers Conolly.
“We know these volumes are possible in Zimbabwe because five commercial fresh produce export flights a week were made from the Harare airport in the 1990s. This is the potential Zimbabwe can reclaim, but we are of the view that the potential market has grown considerably since then.”
A blockchain system that underpins land registration and ownership cannot be modified unilaterally and can provide the trust that is missing in many of the communal land areas of Zimbabwe, he says.
“Without property rights, lands are liabilities instead of assets and people are often charged for their tenure of the land without being able to invest in a productive asset. “This can lead to land degradation, as the tenants must produce to pay for tenure, but are discouraged from investing resources, such as building irrigation systems, in the land to improve it.
“We should be giving people title deeds for land where they live. People who invade land come from a place where they do not have a claim to the land they are living on, which often includes communal lands,” he adds.
Inalienable ownership of assets also engenders a sense of worth in people and helps to secure assets and financial benefits between generations. However, there is an expectation that the children and grandchildren of families empowered with title deeds to communal lands will train in more advanced skills, within and outside agricultural disciplines, says Conolly.
“Enabling a commercial transformation in the area on the back of ownership and productive use of the assets available to people will support development of the community in the short and long term.”
Further investments in newly titled areas could include setting up a solar photovoltaic array to provide power for agroprocessing and cold-chain storage.
“The progressive phases of development that are possible, especially given the lower cost of renewable-energy systems and the potential impact of using new farming methods, would have a major impact not only on the economic development of the former communal area but also on the economy as a whole,” says Conolly.