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Summer 2009

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GIS Brings Commercial Viability to Recognizing the Land Interests of the World's Poor

Evaluating Ghana Pilot Project Results—Part 3

By Peter Rabley, International Land Systems, Inc., and Craig DeRoy, Corporate Initiatives Development Group


  • The pilot proved GIS can help develop a practical means of formalizing land registration for the poor.
  • The Ghana model combines GIS/geospatial technology and an innovative paralegal registration process.
  • GIS-based land registration can enable the poor to identify their land tenure rights.

This article is the fourth and last part of a series that has focused on GIS-based land and title registry. This is the third article to focus on the Ghana pilot program.

The first two articles in this ArcNews series described how a team of partnered companies, brought together by a commitment made to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), set out to demonstrate in Ghana that implementation of geospatial technologies in the land registration process could enable the poor to gain access to the formal land titling process. This article assesses the early results of the pilot program begun late last year in Ghana and examines the promising potential for sustainability and scalability of a commercially viable land registration process to formalize property interests of the poor. (For a complete description of the pilot as described in articles 1 and 2, see the summary sidebar.)

Ms. Adamah receiving the paralegal title to her property upon completion of the paralegal registration process.

In his widely acclaimed book, The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto states that "nearly every developing and former communist nation has a formal property system. The problem is that most citizens [the poor] cannot gain access to it." The barriers to access vary from country to country, but primarily are due to overwhelmed or corrupt bureaucratic government processes that are far too complex, cumbersome, and costly for the impoverished to navigate successfully. As a result, the poor, who represent as much as five-sixths of humanity, are unable to register the only real asset they may have—their land. This basic inequity literally cuts the poor out of a capital market largely recognized in the form of land rights that can be built upon, be financed, and serve as the foundation for asset accumulation and transfers of wealth or inheritance. Reversing this inequity formed the basis of a commitment made to the Clinton Global Initiative to develop a template for a sustainable and scalable, private-sector-led approach that leverages technology to make land registration affordable and accessible to the poor.

A pilot project begun less than a year ago in the West African nation of Ghana has proved that sustainable GIS-based technology can be used to develop a practical, commercially viable means of formalizing the land registration process for the poor. This new model combines geospatial technology and an innovative paralegal registration process to develop a land titling process and GIS-based land records system that automates much of the work involved in collecting property ownership information, creating low-cost and timely property descriptions and surveying of parcels. To most efficiently and responsibly identify and reach the poor in need, the pilot program utilizes the distribution network of a microfinance lender as the trusted broker partner. The program bases its unique approach on a foundation of commercial sustainability and scalability, which has been sorely lacking in other land reform projects that are typically highly subsidized.

  aerial photo; click to enlarge
Ms. Adamah's school, the Providence Educational Complex, seen geocoded on the satellite image of the cadastral map.

Corporate Initiatives Development Group (CIDG), in conjunction with Esri Business Partner International Land Systems, Inc. (ILS), designed and directed the Ghana pilot program and together formed a consortium of partnered companies that included Opportunity International, the microfinance lender; SAMBUS Company Ltd. (the Esri distributor for Ghana); Trimble Navigation; and Esri. The Ghana pilot program initially targeted the owners of 30 private schools in Ashaiman District, one of the poorest areas of Accra, Ghana. By late 2008, the Ghana pilot program was yielding results. The partnered team was beginning to see that it could produce its paralegal title at a cost that could—in a relatively short time—become easily accessible and affordable by the poor. That is, the team began to align the real cost for such practical registrations with the level of microfinance loans typically available to the poor. To achieve this cost- and time-effective result, the team leveraged key components of the very process used by the microlenders to make those loans.

The premise of the pilot program is that human dignity goes hand in hand with certain basic rights. One means of restoring the dignity of the poor is to recognize their identity and the location of where they live through a formal land registration process assisted by a trusted broker in the community. Formal recognition of land tenure empowers leaseholders or landowners in many ways, the most important of which is the ability to leverage their property and be able to begin looking at property as an asset, including the potential for using it to obtain and build on microfinance loans. These loans, often less than $500, can assist individuals in making dramatic changes in their lives, such as starting or growing small businesses.

Overall, the project has been judged a success for achieving the primary objective of showcasing that private industry can implement a practical, informal land registration and paralegal titling system that is much simpler and faster than the traditional formal process. With microfinance loan officers serving as the trusted brokers and assisting the school owners with documentation, the titling process that once took years to arrive at an identity for the property and its landowner can now be completed in a few weeks. All 30 of the pilot schools have had their properties identified through mapping from high-resolution satellite imagery supplemented by GPS "walk-arounds," and the owners/tenants have received the paralegal title to the land under their buildings.

As the newly elected democratic government in Ghana takes hold and the newly appointed land minister continues the process of moving land registration ahead across the country, the paralegal titling process provides a ready-made starting point for official review and sign-off by the government. The land team is confident that the adoption of the ILS MultiCadastre Open Title system (based on Esri technology) will drive the government's appreciation of the economies of scale now possible to make formal land registration truly accessible to the poor. A major factor helping cut the costs involved in conducting surveys and awarding titles is the time savings delivered by state-of-the-art technologies, such as GIS and GPS.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the early results of the pilot. Most notable is the fact that low-cost, sustainable, and scalable GIS-based land registration technology can indeed enable the poor to quickly and successfully identify their land tenure rights. Moreover, the pilot demonstrates that recognition of customary tenure as a validation of an individual's rights as a person—regardless of economic stature—can be accomplished within the framework of existing laws.

Belief in the Process

In a project such as this, progress and success are often gauged by impersonal statistics or reports filed with stakeholders. But in Ghana, the people didn't read about progress in the newspaper; they witnessed it firsthand when survey teams equipped with high-accuracy GPS receivers began surveying their schoolyards in Ashaiman. Once a community begins to see that the process is actually working and paralegal titles are being issued to their neighbors, they begin to believe that it can work for them too, and they begin to feel empowered as a community.

Ms. Adamah is the owner of the Providence Educational Complex, which was one of the first schools in the pilot to be reviewed under the paralegal titling process. Looking back on the sequence of events, she believes the most significant benefit given to her under this program was the validation that the school was indeed hers. Her legal rights had been privately formalized, and as a result, she had confidence that the school could someday be used as an asset and would be passed on by inheritance to her family. She was visibly moved the day her property was surveyed and she was shown the outline of the school overlaid on a satellite image of Accra. For the first time, she literally saw her place in the world—and it had an address that reaffirmed her sense of identity.

Mobile GPS-based GIS was used to survey Ms. Adamah's school.

As word of Adamah's experience, and others like hers, spread by word of mouth through the community, neighbors began approaching the land team's field personnel during the GPS boundary survey and field adjudication process, asking if they could be next. Many of them had attempted to navigate the government's titling process on their own but had been frustrated by the process. In a survey of the landowners conducted prior to the pilot program, 80 percent said they had tried to get formal title to their property for years, but all had given up. However, seeing is believing. When these individuals see their own property geocoded with a location on a map for the first time, they realize that their stature has just risen to a new level as they have joined the ranks of those who already enjoy what is rightly due them—access to capital based on the assets they own.

A Continuum

The pilot revealed some unexpected insights as well. Most notable among these is the importance of property rights recognition along a continuum of personal rights—beginning with the very basic property report showing a point location of that piece of land on the earth and moving to the official description of landownership rights supported by formal documentation in official government records. The pilot program has demonstrated that GIS-based technology is an effective tool that can be readily calibrated to match the need for definition of a range of property interests and information that is affordable. This pilot program utilized a level of specificity in the form of a paralegal title certificate. The next gradation is the primary level of formal title where the surveys produced are accepted and recorded in the official records of the government.

From a technological perspective, the pilot is also proving that even in the poorest of areas, land adjudication with modern geospatial techniques yields benefits extending well beyond the low-income leaseholder and into the entire surrounding community. During the parcel survey, the introduction of real-time differential correction with the Trimble base station was a watershed event for both SAMBUS and the Ghana Ministry of Lands. Until the GPS began providing 10-centimeter accuracy in real time, the government did not consider GPS a viable technology for parcel mapping. But it does now. And local companies can realize a business model change overnight as the time required for a property survey was reduced from half a day to just 15 minutes. Companies can now offer GPS survey services at a fraction of the previous costs, making it affordable to a variety of new industries.

As ILS populated the MultiCadastre Open Title system's geodatabase with satellite imagery, geospatial data layers, and parcels, a land-use map of Ashaiman emerged for the first time. A land planner from the Ministry of Lands was provided with the map so he could better grasp difficult growth issues that need to be addressed. For example, many squatters have built their shacks in a flood zone, while others have encroached upon roadways and footpaths. The GIS is now a powerful tool that will assist in dealing with these problems.

The Commercial Viability and Future of the Program

The pilot program demonstrated that GIS-based land registration technology can indeed enable the poor to quickly and successfully register their land rights at a cost that is affordable and sustainable. Moreover, when these technology solutions are presented in conjunction with microfinance distribution partners, the potential for scaling and long-term commercial viability is dramatically increased. The global movement in microfinance has seen tremendous growth in recent years, and it is estimated to now be serving between 125 and 150 million customers, according to a recent article in Financial Times. By utilizing microfinance lenders that are already established as trusted brokers in the communities they serve, this program is able to leverage existing distribution networks, thereby reducing the cost of identifying and delivering land registration services to the poor. By offering the land registration services to the full spectrum of microlenders, from those that are more commercially based to those that are highly subsidized or donor based, there is an increased ability to ensure that the program will aid the poor at all levels of the poverty spectrum, including the poorest of the poor who are often considered too hard to reach or too expensive to serve.

As promising as the results of the Ghana pilot program have been, the project participants understand there is still much work to be accomplished. The most important goal now is to keep the momentum going in Ghana and elsewhere. The project partners will expand the Ghana pilot in 2009 to include support for new microfinance products under development. The group is also looking at expansion of its program in the rural areas outside Accra where farmers are granted oral permission to work the fields owned by local tribes. Looking globally, success will be declared as additional microfinance organizations validate the concept by embracing these innovative land registry services as part of their offerings to the poor. The project partners—CIDG, ILS, Trimble Navigation, and Esri—are working with CGI to expand the program globally. They are interested in initiating new partnerships and are actively seeking suggestions from organizations operating in other parts of the world where the impoverished would benefit from easy and inexpensive access to paralegal title and land registration.

About the Authors

Peter Rabley is president of International Land Systems, Inc., with more than 20 years of experience designing and implementing land information systems around the world. Craig DeRoy is president of Corporate Initiatives Development Group and has more than 25 years of executive management experience. He is expert in designing and implementing services and solutions to meet the challenges and opportunities of emerging markets worldwide.

More Information

For more information, contact Peter Rabley (e-mail: or Craig DeRoy (e-mail:

Ghana Project Leverages GIS-Based Title Registration and Microfinance to Alleviate Poverty, Part 1

Geospatial Technology Drives Adjudication: Ghana Project Leverages GIS-Based Title Registration and Microfinance to Alleviate Poverty—Part 2

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