The Investment Case for Land Tenure Security in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Nov 2023 | One Comment

Land tenure security is a critical government service that has repercussions on agricultural productivity, housing development, business investment, and the development of urban areas. The present study presents a cost-benefit analysis of tenure security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Readers may recall that we published the first part of the study in September 2023 issue of Coordinates. The first part focussed on the cost factor and this part focusses on the benefit analysis

Frank F.K. Byamugisha

Independent Consultant

Nancy Dubosse

Copenhagen Consensus Center, Tewksbury, MA, USA


The observed benefits of land registration vary depending on whether the intervention takes place in rural or urban areas. Annexes 1 and 2 summarize the evidence in the literature on rural and urban tenure security interventions.

Benefits of improved rural tenure security

With respect to land registration in rural areas, there is a narrow range of impacts observed and measured. The anticipated benefits include an (a) increase in farmers’ demand for farm improvements, productive and land conservation technologies, a consequence of improved confidence of being in possession of the parcel in the long run; (b) increase in the supply of formal credit through the creation of tradable collaterals; and (c) as a result of either or both of the preceding benefits, an increase in yields and income.

Successful country examples of rural land tenure interventions include the national land certification and registration programs in Vietnam, Rwanda and Ethiopia. In the former, land titling results, on average, in a 7.5% increase in the cultivation of perennial crops and a reallocation of 11−12 weeks of nonfarm labor time by the household (Do and Iyer 2007). In Rwanda, households affected by land tenure were almost 10 percentage points more likely to make or maintain soil conservation investments in structures such as bunds, terraces and check dams, which was double the change in investment in the control group (Ngoga, 2019). There is also the case of Benin, which in the context of customary tenure, demonstrated that treatment households are 39% to 43% more likely to grow perennial cash crops and invest in trees on their parcels (WrenLewis, Becerra-Valbuena and Houngbedji 2020). Korsaga (2018) evaluates the impact of land security tenure on technical efficiency of 706 villages across 45 provinces in Burkina Faso. Farmers with land tenure security are more efficient in their use of inputs than are farmers with unsecured farms. The difference in technical efficiency between two groups was low (0.029) but significant at 1%.

However, there are studies that show limited or no impact of tenure security on agricultural productivity or household welfare evidence. Alban Singirankabo and Ersten (2020) found, after reviewing 85 studies, that in 34% of studies, land rights were not found to be a significant factor in determining whether farmers made land-improving investments, used yield-enhancing inputs, accessed credit, or improved the productivity of land. Other country cases that also reveal less than spectacular results of land titling on agricultural productivity, credit or migration include Ahn (2019) for Cambodia; Aikielli and Markussen (2017) for Tanzania; Huntington and Shenoy (2021) for Zambia, and Coulibaly Sagoe, and Shixiang (2021) for Mali.

Huntington and Shenoy (2021) undertook a randomized trial in Zambia in which customary land certificates were issued at the end of a process that included sensitization, the formation of a village land committee, and training in land management and conflict resolution. One treatment arm was also the beneficiary of agroforestry extension. These certificates were signed by the chief and confirmed in writing the right to use the land in perpetuity. The parcels could not be sold or transferred except through inheritance. The researchers found a statistically significant 3 percentage point increase in agroforestry at the household-level from the treatment arm that was exposed to both interventions. Looking at over 3000 large Zambian farms, Ali and Deininger (2021) also find no impact of de jure certification on productivity as measured by gross profit per ha. They conclude, also noting Huntington and Shenoy’s (2021) findings, that the reason for this finding is that user rights granted by chiefs are not legally recognized, nor can they be collateralized. In Zambia, the only way to have land rights formally documented is to convert customary land to ‘state land’. Since 1995, more than 30 million hectares have been transferred to the State.

Key to the notion of tenure security is the transferability and collateralization of parcels. A similar occurrence was observed in China. Following a national initiative to improve land tenure security in 2009, there remained suppressed farmer investment even though farmers held 30-year use rights to land. They were subsequently granted the right to transfer, and a subset of counties officially recognized farm user certificates as a form of collateral. These households were 9.1 percentage points more likely to receive a loan. Whereas in the other counties that had titles but no official recognition of them as collateral, there was a 5.5 percentage point increase in unmet demand for credit. Low productivity was ameliorated by letting small-holder farmers transfer farmland to others for agricultural production and use the certificates as collateral (Li, Zhang, and Hayes 2018; Cheng, Zhou, and Zhang 2021).

Another randomized trial of a land formalization program was in Benin, which involved raising awareness about the demarcation and documentation of parcel boundaries. The issuance of certificates was not part of the treatment, but owners had the expectation of receipt from authorities. Treated parcels were 2.4 percentage points more likely than control parcels to be used primarily for perennial crops, and they are 1.7 percentage points more likely to have a newly planted tree.

These two experiments share a common finding of statistically significant farm investment, evidenced by increased use of fertilizer, improved seeds, labor time, and/or the decision to plant perennial crops. Other studies demonstrating this outcome include Deininger et al. (2021) for Malawi, Aberra and Chemin (2021) for Kenya; Hayes, Roth, and Zepeda (1997) for Gambia, and Do and Iyer (2007) for Vietnam. Perennial and annual crops do not generate similar income streams. While the payback period for the latter is at least 1 year, it takes 3 years for a cocoa tree to start bearing fruit and an additional 6–7 years to reach full maturity and its highest yield, which may last for at least 10 years (Bros et al. 2019).

Identification of the impacts of tenure security depends greatly on the timing of data collection and the context in which the intervention is applied. Goldstein et al. (2018) conclude that it is generally difficult to observe increases in agricultural productivity because it takes more than one year for investments in perennial crops to generate productivity gains; a notion supported by Higgins et al. (2018), who, after investigating 59 studies, found strong support for productive or commercial investment by farmers, but no change in productivity or income. Thus, farm investment may be the channel through which higher productivity and thus incomes are realized.

A specific example of this is Vietnam where land reform led to a statistically significant increase in the proportion of total cultivated area devoted to multi-year crops: households in provinces that had completed land certification increased their proportion by 7.5 percentage points over the period 1993−98. Households also increased non-farm activity by 2.7 weeks per working member between 1992−93 and 1997−98, the most reported activities being sales in markets, food processing, woodworking, and work in the textiles and garment industry. This corresponds to an increase of between 11 and 12 weeks worked in the nonfarm sector for the household, as the average number of working members in the household was 4.37 in 1992−93 and 4.46 in 1997−98. Do and Iyer (2007) concluded that while they found no significant impact on overall household consumption expenditure or agricultural income at the time of analysis, the increases in investment were likely to yield greater returns in the future.

For the purposes of this cost-benefit analysis, the benefit of rural land tenure security is largely based on a meta-analysis by Lawry et al. (2016), which was limited to lower-income and lower-middle-income countries.
• Eight of the 20 cases (two in Africa) reveal that there was an average increase of 42% on the monetary value of agricultural productivity; however, the prediction interval (the distribution of effects in the true population) includes zero, albeit in the far-left tail. The two lowest mean effects (less than 25%) are attributed to Ethiopia and Madagascar, and the study of the former includes zero in its mean confidence interval at 95%.
• The ten studies used, including five African countries, show evidence of an increase in the probability of farmer investment by 5 percentage points, but the prediction interval also includes zero. Again, this includes both Ethiopia and Madagascar, as was also the case for China, although the study used was before the transferability and collateralization of land mentioned above.
• Four of the cases (Nicaragua, Peru, India, and Vietnam) show evidence of a 15% increase in household income. Heterogeneity is low, and the prediction interval is positive; however, there are no African countries included in the sample.

The wide dispersion observed for both agricultural productivity and farm investment is critical because the authors demonstrate that the effects for the Sub-Saharan African countries were markedly lower. Using eight publications involving Sub-Saharan African countries4 , the authors conducted a formal moderator analysis for effects on productivity and long-term investment in the region. Effects sizes are significantly lower for agricultural productivity; the mean effect is below zero (−0.42; p-value 0.01). The coefficient for farm investment was not statistically significant, and there was not enough evidence to calculate a mean effect for household income.

Lawry et al. (2016) also conducted an assessment of seven qualitative studies carried out in Sub-Saharan Africa, a study focused on Peru, and one on Vietnam. While there was significant variation, there were almost exclusively positive experiences regarding investment, long-term production, leasing out land and consumption.

Since the systematic review of Lawry et al. (2016), additional evidence has emerged. In a more recent systematic review, Higgins et al. (2018) investigate the impact of tenure security in 59 low- and middle- income countries (25 on Sub-Saharan African countries), and found that there is strong support that land tenure security increases productive and commercial investment, for which it is assumed that higher income will be realized in the future. Table 6 lists the most recent evidence of tenure security intervention impacts in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the channels vary, it can be concluded that household welfare improves in the medium to long term as a result of improved land tenure security and the subsequent investments made by farmers. The rights to transfer, exchange and lease land-user certificates create a formal market for land, which may achieve a better allocation of land than a centralized/informal system. The right to mortgage land-user certificates allows farmers to undertake investments that have high up-front costs, such as planting multi-year crops (Do and Iyer 2007).

Some country examples include the following:
• Deininger et al. (2021) reveal that the right to bequeath or sell land in Malawi is estimated to significantly increase the likelihood of long-term investment via organic manure application by 0.12 and 0.07 percentage points, respectively.
• Muchomba (2017) examines household consumption patterns in the Tigray region of Ethiopia after a land-certification exercise that provided households with the right to use, lease, and bequeath land to family members. Monthly expenditures on healthcare increased by 33% after joint certification (p-value .01); the consumption of homegrown food increased by 57% (p-value 0.10); consumption of clothing increased by 36.9% (p-value 0.10), and investment in education increased by 59.9% (p-value 0.01).
• In Kenya, tenure security increased the proportion of people borrowing by 9 percentage points. People who borrowed from a credit union indicated that the loans are not only used for agriculture: 26% report using the loan for human capital investment, 23% for business investment, and 22% for health-related expenses. The main source of collateral for these credit union loans is the harvest. Aberra and Chemin (2021) conclude that increased security of property rights is used as collateral to obtain loans and is used for more general purposes than just agriculture.
• In Ethiopia, Ayalew, Admasu, and Chamberlin (2021) observe a significant welfare difference between treated and control groups and note that rental market participation and hired labor are the main channels through which certification affects household consumption. Average treated households used around 19.15 more hours of hired labor and spent 75.8 hours more on soil conservation.

To summarize, the bulk of studies on Sub-Saharan Africa find modest to no impact on agricultural productivity and household income but do demonstrate substantive evidence of farmer investment in its various forms. Given the body of evidence around farm investment in African countries and the increase in household income and consumption in non-African countries (but also low-income) as a result of farmer investment, we therefore use the central income estimate of 15%, established by the results of Lawry et al. (2016). This increased welfare could come from expanded farm area or from non-farm activities like investment in livestock or agroforestry (see Table 6). Noting that impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be more modest and that the studies in Lawry et al. (2016) demonstrating household wealth benefits had a minimum of 5 years between initiation and assessment, we delay benefits for the first five years of the intervention period.

Benefit-cost ratio, rural land tenure

According to the World Bank’s Open Data, the value added from Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing to GDP of Subb-Saharan Africa in 2020 was approximately US$ 342.9 billion. Assuming that 84% of rural areas are characterized by unregistered land parcels, the value added of this subregion is US$ 287.7 billion.

The number of households treated by the intervention is approximately 83 million, with a starting point household income of US$ 3461, on average. The benefits of tenure security are assumed to be enjoyed over a span of 30 years, and Agricultural GDP increases at an annual rate of 3.3% over that period, the average from 2011−2020.

The 15% wealth effect and an annual household uptake rate of 10% is applied starting in Year 6 6 ; household income at this point is US$ 4075. Afterwards 100% of the benefit is assessed until Year 30, at which point it is assumed that there is an increase in uncertainty, which could arise from several sources: radical political movements, the death of the original beneficiary and intergenerational transfer, among other things. The net present value (8%) of the benefits stream is US$ 395.7 billion, and the net present value (8%) of costs, which run over 10 years, is just under US$ 21.7 billion. Thus, the benefit-cost ratio is 18.

Benefits of improved urban tenure security

Regarding the benefits of urban tenure security (Annex 2), by far the most common and consistent benefit is the increase in land values, which appears to concentrate around the value of 25% when outliers Indonesia (45%) and Cambodia (66%) are removed. This was the case in Peru, Ecuador, Philippines, and Tanzania. Durand-Lasserve et al. (2007) find considerable support for the claim that urban land titling increases property values: they observe that price increases of 25% are common following the provision of land titles.

Benefit-cost ratio, urban

The monetized benefit is a 25% level increase in housing values, realized in the year following registration and is assumed to be preserved over the duration of the intervention period.

Average national housing prices were taken from the Center for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, which posts the prices in purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars $ (2020), for the 20 largest Sub-Saharan African countries by population. The inflation adjusted average housing price in 2020 is US$ 41,845. The net present value (8%) of the benefits stream is US$ 236.9 billion. Again, with the net present value of costs being US$ 5.3 billion, the benefit-cost ratio is 45.

When weighted by the proportion of urban residents of total population, the average housing price is US$ 28,240. Here, the net present value (8%) of the benefits stream is US$ 159.9 billion, yielding a benefit-cost ratio of 30.


The summary of the benefit-cost analysis can be found in Table 7. Previous cost-benefit analyses of land tenure security interventions by the Copenhagen Consensus Center yielded similar good results. In Ghana, the central benefit-cost ratio of a national land titling program, which covered 75% of land in both rural and urban areas was 91, ranging from 5 to 219 depending on various scenarios (Adjasi et al. 2020). In Malawi, for a similar country-wide titling intervention, the BCR ranged from 18 to 138, with a central estimate of 73 (National Planning Commission, 2021).

Although not included in the calculations for both urban and rural land titling programs, there are efficiency gains in modernizing land administration services. Technical (e.g., digitization) and managerial innovations can create efficiencies and improve workflow, thereby reducing the costs (direct and indirect) of registering land transactions. In Lesotho, the total days required to register property declined from 101 to 43 following regulatory reform. In Jamaica, institutional and administration reforms reduced property registration and transfer times from 70 to 30 and 25 to 5 days, respectively, while reducing survey check times from 182 to 35 days (Millennium Challenge Corporation 2019). Ghana reduced the number of days to transfer property from 169 in 2005 to 34 in 2011; Uganda reduced the number of days to transfer property from 227 in 2007 to 48 in 2011. In Madagascar, titles, which involved 24 steps and took up to 6 years at a cost of US$ 500 per title, reduced to US$ 14 per title and a processing time of six months (Byamugisha 2013).

Critical success factors

• The cost of parcel registration and subsequent land transactions borne by the private sector is a critical determinant of the program’s success. Ali et al. (2021) found that despite a desire for formalization, 87% of rural land transactions in Rwanda remain informal because the cost of registration is higher than the willingness to pay. The authors estimate the willingness to pay at about 2% of the land’s value. Reforms to increase compliance by reducing rural fees to affordable levels (including a waiver for the poor) would be revenue-neutral but greatly enhance social welfare. According to the World Bank’s 2019 Ease of Doing Business Survey, the cost of property registration in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently 10% of property value.
• According to Higgins et al. (2018), attention must be given to the potential exclusion that can result from securitization of land. Certain groups were found to have been blocked or hindered from benefiting from land formalization for a variety of reasons but mainly due to local institutions tasked with implementing the intervention doing so unfairly, with common instances of corruption, elite capture and clientelism leading to poorer households and women being unable to benefit from these interventions.
• There is also the challenge of sufficient funds allocated to capacity-building and implementation. The authority and power of local chiefs to govern land has been diluted by the incorporation of their powers into statutory law. Creation of ‘new’ institutions to support land governance creates new checks and balances on their authority in ways that did not exist before. This is an extension of state power into areas where it had limited influence. In reality, however, a lack of state capacity to follow through on this statutory influence implies that by default customary institutions have continued to dispense local justice and resolve conflicts over land just like before (Chimhowu 2019). This should also include reinforcement of the legal system, as the inability to enforce contracts and secure property rights could erode all anticipated benefits (Aberra and Chemin 2021). The authors undertook a randomized intervention in Kenya offering the services of a free lawyer for 2 years (85% uptake in the treatment group) in a rural setting with prohibitive lawyer fees and numerous land disputes. Not all cases were fully resolved after two years, but legal representation increased the security of property rights, which translated into greater investment and access to credit. Two years after the start of the intervention, treated households had increased the number of days worked on their plot by 15% compared to control households. Investment increased by 21%. Access to credit to finance long-run productive investments (set up a business or agricultural and human capital investment) increased by 56% in the treatment versus the control group. Agricultural production increased by 42%.

Land titling and supportive investments to improve land administration is complex, involving many stakeholders. While the monetary costs are low if implemented efficiently and the benefits, at least to urban land titling, extraordinarily high, implementing a streamlined low-cost process to register land will reduce rents to some groups (such as surveyors), who benefit from current regulations that impede lowcost systematic process and reduce opportunities for land-related corruption. In many African countries, legacy titles will also have to be addressed. To initiate such a process, regulatory changes are a precondition; otherwise, reforms will not be sustainable. Furthermore, high level commitment to reform and detailed monitoring of implementation will be essential, and this should be highlighted.

Given the difference in benefit-cost ratios between urban and rural land and the need for regulatory changes to facilitate implementation, it may make sense to suggest adoption of a sequenced approach at country level. Phase I would consist of registration of all urban land outside of slum areas (the scope involved can easily be quantified using satellite imagery, as was done in Nigeria) as well as elaboration of the regulatory framework for Phase II (area-based adjudication of all rural land at village/ community level together with definition of processes for rural-urban land conversion and village-wide issuance of titles where appropriate), to be followed by actual implementation of Phase II.

End notes

1The five countries surveyed in 2010/11 are Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda; the sixth country, surveyed in 2011/12, is Ethiopia.

2We estimate that only 30 out of 48 Sub-Saharan Africa countries would require special interventions to register communal land rights.

3The percentage of urban population living in slums in Vietnam, China, South Africa and Rwanda in 2018 was 14, 25, 26, 30 and 42, respectively (World Bank Open Data, accessed January 2022).

4Based on five-year average of U.S. consumer price inflation, 2017- 2021 (World Bank Open Data).

5The sample included four studies on Ethiopia and one each for Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia.

6The delay of the benefits reflects the fact the household wealth impacts are observed in the medium-term, rather than as an immediate consequence.


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The paper is originally published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis. This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence ( by/4.0), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.

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The paper is published with authors’ permission. 


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One Comment »

  • Keith C Bell said:

    Most definitely some learnings in this article.

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