Land ownership remains a contentious and often volatile issue throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Land policies and reforms that aim to promote economic growth, protect natural resources and alleviate poverty are often met with resistance and suspicion and stop short of fulfilling all social and financial expectations.

In a 2013 study undertaken by The World Bank entitled “Securing Africa´s Land for Shared Prosperity: A Program to Scale Up Reforms and Investments”, the pressing and controversial nature of land ownership is examined in relation to agricultural productivity. While Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly half of the earth’s usable uncultivated land (202 million hectares), it still has the highest poverty rate in the world.

The World Bank study suggests that poor land governance – the way in which land rights are defined and administered – may be the root cause of this general disconnect. It submits that the vast majority of African countries are still making use of land administration systems that were inherited at independence, together with survey and mapping techniques that are antiquated. The report seeks to demonstrate that a positive relationship between land tenure security and agricultural production may be the first step towards leveraging the continents abundant land and natural resources to generate shared and sustained growth.

There are a diverse range of approaches to land ownership in most countries in Southern Africa. Each type of ownership (albeit private, community, state or a combination of all three) appears to have profound economic, social and political implications.

A paper to be presented by Professor Felix Mavondo at Monash University´s upcoming International Symposium on Building a Sustainable Future in Sub-Saharan Africa will focus on how these competing approaches may be blended to best support long-term food security and rural development. The conference, taking place at the end of November at the Monash campus in Johannesburg, will assemble a group of prominent international researchers who will explore strategies that may be implemented to establish good governance, social learning and collective action.

“The topic of land ownership is sensitive because of the many dimensions involved. Even amongst academics, the discourse is seldom sober and unemotional,” remarks Mavondo, Professor of Marketing at Monash University Australia. “On the one hand, it is easy to see when economies of scale are not functioning efficiently, as is the case in Zimbabwe. However, it is important not to overlook the fundamental issue of ownership, stewardship and historical attachment.”

Professor Mavondo explains that the symposium will reflect on the differential performance of agriculture in Zambia and Mozambique (where land is state owned), South Africa (where there is predominantly private and community ownership) and Zimbabwe (where all three forms of ownership exist).

“Decisions made in support of any of the ownership models have to consider how to increase agricultural yield and ensure enduring food security.”