The chart below depicts one of the most stubborn and pernicious gaps in the world today. My country’s farmers here in Tanzania are represented by that bottom blue line. They produce about one-tenth as much maize, per hectare, as a farmer in Alberta or Iowa, and about half as much as a farmer 3,000 kilometers to the south in KwaZulu-Natal.

In an effort to boost productivity, food security, and incomes, many well-intentioned African governments, my own included, invited foreign investors to buy or lease land, and establish large-scale commercial farms — the kind you see stretching to the horizon in places like Alberta, Iowa, and KwaZulu-Natal.

What followed, in many cases, captured headlines around the world: thousands of smallholder farming families pushed off their land — often without adequate consultation or unfair compensation.

Average Maize Yields Measured in Tonnes per Hectare per Year

The Foundational Role of Land Rights

Both the government and private investors soon learned that Africa’s smallholder farmers’ meager harvest isn’t just the result of poor access to markets, agricultural extension agents, and high-quality seeds and fertilizer. Africa’s smallholder farmers labor without something even more fundamental: secure rights to their land. In fact, according to the World Bank, about 90% of the agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa is undocumented. That means that many governments simply do not have a registry of who owns what land or their registry is out of date. As a result, much of the land  that governments think is unused and available for investors, is actually occupied.

In Ghana, for instance, the Lands Commission estimates that their records include only about 2% of all farms.

This may sound like a technical or bureaucratic problem. But it is far larger. Weak, unclear, and undocumented land rights are just the most visible element of a systemic failure, a failure that undermines smallholder farmers’ security and willingness to make productivity-enhancing investments in their land. Insecure land rights also undermine farmers’ ability to lease their land and move on to more remunerative work. And undocumented land rights are particularly problematic for women, who do more than half of the farming, but often have to depend on their husbands, brothers, or fathers to access land.

The dysfunction occurs at multiple levels. In many countries, land laws and policies are outdated, unclear, or conflict with the customary law practiced throughout rural areas. Even when laws and policies are clear, if a farmer’s land rights are violated, they often have no access to justice and therefore little recourse. And in geographies where land is managed communally, often roles and responsibilities within that community are unclear, disempowering of women, with little oversight to ensure everyone within the community benefits equally.

Both governments and private sector investors now recognize that a dysfunctional land tenure system isn’t just a problem for smallholder farmers, it is a problem for investors who can’t establish commercial farms if they can’t identify who to negotiate with to buy or lease land. This dysfunction poses further risk to business if their large-scale land-based investments will not be documented, respected, or protected.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this challenge. Agriculture remains the primary economic activity in Tanzania, employing more than 65% of the workforce, and directly contributing to the livelihoods of more than 80% of the population (Hella et al 2014). And Tanzania is not an outlier in this regard.

The Solution

The solution starts with documenting women and men’s land use and rights, but it doesn’t stop there. It must also include improving women and men’s understanding of their rights and providing access to justice when those land rights are violated. A systemic solution must clarify and update national land laws and policies to better protect male and female smallholder farmers and communal rights to land. And finally, a systemic solution must develop, test, and disseminate a recommended set of best practices for businesses, governments, and communities engaging in large-scale land-based investments.

Neither the private sector, nor governments, nor civil society alone has the capacity to develop such a multi-layered solution. But together they can.

My organization, Landesa, has helped forge such a partnership between governments, private sector investors, commercial farming companies, civil society groups, and communities to develop such systemic solutions — illuminating a path forward that will benefit all of the parties involved.

Collaborate, Don’t Criticize

In Tanzania, we are working with the government, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Human Settlement Development, the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, a range of academics, and civil society groups. Our collaboration is focused on addressing land rights and policy issues, strengthening land governance, and fostering responsible investment. We have a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Land Use Planning Commission that spells out our collective goals and responsibilities. We quite literally tick each item as we move through the MOU, helping the government, along with a range of other partners, improve its land policies. We are all partners in this work.

We have found it far more effective to collaborate with government than to criticize. The work that must be accomplished is simply much bigger than any of us alone can manage, and each actor plays an important role in addressing the challenges.

We have also worked closely with the private sector. For example, we developed a partnership with Illovo Sugar Africa, the largest sugar supplier in Africa, to train their staff on land rights and to develop the “LandAssess Tool.” The tool helps companies conduct land rights due diligence and monitoring, including helping companies to better recognize and respect communities and smallholder farmers’ land rights. That improves security and reduces conflict for all.

This partnership approach is also evident in our work on the Responsible Investments in Property and Land (or RIPL) Resource Platform, which offers practical, step-by-step guidance for investors, governments, and communities to navigate large-scale land-based investments.

Similarly, we are creating the Social License Platform (SLP), an online tool that matches companies looking to invest in agriculture with service providers and non-profit groups able to help them create investments that include farmers, women, and local communities as beneficiaries of the investment. Both RIPL and SLP are being piloted in Tanzania, and we continue to seek partners to work with us on these platforms.

Our Partnerships are Guided by Five Key Principles

1. Unity is Power
It has become apparent that the complex environmental and social challenges of today can’t be solved by a singular actor or even within one sector.

2. One Plus One Equals Three
When it comes to collaboration, we can get exponentially more done when we work together than when we each work alone.

3. Local Perspective is Key
We have knowledgeable local staff who can provide added value to our partners, and we constantly seek to learn more about areas where we can add value to our common cause.

4. Be a Humble Servant
We recognize that the work won’t get done without our partners. Sometimes working from the back seat can be the most effective way to move toward a shared goal.

5. Cross-Sector Partnerships Add Value
We look for chances to reach across silos to achieve milestones in development, and so foster relationships with organizations working on climate change and conservation, livelihoods, health, and education.