By Peter Rabley, Venture Partner at Omidyar Network
It wasn’t a promising start. When we pulled into the village of Wasa Samang in Western Ghana one early morning, a couple of elderly villagers and a rangy dog were waiting to greet us. But as the sun rose and the air warmed, the village square began to fill and a sense of occasion grew. Before too long, farmers were ready to hand over their hard-earned cash.
The reason? A new way for them to acquire the documentation that will protect their rights to their land and property. We were visiting with Landmapp, a startup company based in Amsterdam, that has developed an end-to-end solution for documenting and protecting land rights in Ghana. Previous efforts funded by the government have made little headway — running out of money long before most people received any documents.
Landmapp’s approach combines widely available technology with a carefully trained workforce and clear understanding of the local legal and administrative system. The company has developed an app that combines GPS-based survey data with basic administrative details and an oral history of how the land came to be acquired and owned. The resulting documentation is then certified by the local authorities and becomes a legally defensible certificate of title.
What is unusual about Landmapp’s model is that it requires farmers to pay for documentation. Previous schemes have offered land titles for free, but have frequently failed to deliver. What we saw in the village and surrounding farms that day was evidence that farmers were willing to pay for a product they saw they needed.
This is a critical part of our approach to investing in property rights. We believe there is a viable and sustainable market for property rights delivery, combining technology with smart customer service to meet the needs of farmers and others who need to protect their rights.
Landmapp was established in 2015 by Simon Ulvund and Thomas Vaassen, two Amsterdam-based entrepreneurs who saw the potential in this market. They developed an innovative approach using geospatial technology and a mobile platform to document land parcels and tenure information. Their first country of operation is Ghana, and they have plans to expand into other countries following this successful rollout.
The company has established a strong base in Ghana and developed close ties with respected local surveying, legal and administrative officials. Landmapp has hired a team of field workers, who spend their days travelling from farm to farm and village to village, surveying plots and delivering documentation.
The surveyors use handheld devices linked to the global positioning system (GPS) to map each farmer’s plot. This is then confirmed with neighbors and village elders. The surveyors then interview the farmer about how they came by the land and what proof of ownership they have.
Finally, they deliver a document that has been validated by customary authorities (in most cases, local chiefs), as well as licensed government surveyors and the judicial authority. Already, the company has sold more than 2,000 documents to smallholder farmers in Ghana, demonstrating that farmers are willing and able to pay for this valuable documentation.
In many developing countries, smallholder farmers have little if any protection for their land. They are vulnerable to the risk of land disputes and evictions. Documented property rights enable them to plan for their future, including by investing in their land and property, insuring the health of their families and sending their children to school. This has a highly positive impact on the economic wellbeing of the farmers, their families and their communities.
We believe Landmapp’s approach has the potential to develop into a sustainable and replicable model and demonstrate the value placed on property rights by the people who need them most.
That is why we invested.