Painting a New Land Portrait of Uganda

Painting a New Land Portrait of Uganda

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With a plan that focuses on decentralising services and increasing accountability, Uganda is betting on a modern approach to cure its land administration ailments

More than 80% of Uganda’s land was unregistered — and the security of the other 20% was uncertain. The nation’s land management system was laden with cumbersome and inefficient policies, questionable business practices and a near total lack of confidence from citizens and investors. The World Bank’s 2013 Doing Business report ranked Uganda 120th out of 185 nations on the ease of doing business — and 124th in registering property. Land transactions were conducted at the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD) headquarters on Parliament Avenue in Kampala. For many Ugandans, that meant a maddening trek of hundreds of kilometres, a journey that was often repeated again and again as the inefficient paper- based system moved at an interminably slow pace.

The process could take anywhere from 100 to 300 days — or longer. Between registration fees, stamp duty and travel costs — not to mention back-office bribes to grease the registry wheels — it wasn’t unusual for a single land registration to cost 300,000 Ugandan shillings (over $100). Documents were forged, parcels of land were often allocated to multiple owners, the entire system was vulnerable to theft and corruption and land disputes were rampant. Investors were reluctant to risk their money in such a tenuous environment.

“Land insecurity is an enormous obstacle to [Uganda’s] economic and social development,” says Nadege Orlova, Regional Director IGNFI, France and the DeSILISoR Project Director. “This was a situation where something very desperately had to change.”

Uganda’s land resurgence
Today, that change is in the air for title-seekers in southern Uganda. In 2010, a consortium led by IGN France International was awarded a World Bank tender to embark on a bold land reform effort — one that encourages development, promotes investment and bolsters the trust of its citizens. The $10-million project is called ‘Design, Supply, Installation, Implementation of the Lands Information system and Securing of Land Records’ (DeSILISOR). With the help of technology and consultation from Thomson Reuters, DeSILISoR is transforming an inefficient and error-prone land administration into a modernised, secure and transparent IT-based land administration framework. It is part of the $24-million Improving Business environment component of the Private Sector Competitiveness (PSCP) II initiative.

DeSILISoR is already painting a new land portrait in Uganda. In parts of southern Uganda, fragile paper records have disappeared — replaced by easily searchable digital titles and modernised cadastral information systems. In the pilot areas, Ugandans no longer endure long journeys back and forth to Kampala. Now, citizens can conduct their land transactions at the newly opened Ministerial Zonal Offices (MZOs).

And the labyrinth system of “hidden costs” that blocked title-seekers path and encouraged corruption is becoming a relic of the past. The digital system tracks every movement of the title, from a receptionist’s hands to a clerk’s desk. All fees are prominently posted. And registering a title — a process that once took months or years — can often be completed in a matter of days.

“This is a big achievement,” claims Richard Oput, the Assistant Commissioner for Lands at the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD). “In many ways, this is something many people never thought they would see in their lifetimes.”

The DeSILISoR project targeted six pilot MZOs: Kampala, Mukono, Wakiso, Jinja, Masaka and Mbarara. It also established a Kampala-based National Land Information Centre, which serves as both technical support and as a data repository for all the sites. The MLHUD headquarters was also upgraded and modernised.

Already, DeSILISoR has laid the groundwork for a comprehensive digital registry. To date, the project has converted half a million deteriorating paper titles into digital format. Records dating back nearly 90 years old were validated before being entered into the system. And more than 16,500 torn and frayed maps were scanned in just six months.

Land legacy
In Uganda, land is at the heart of agricultural policies, rural development, territorial planning and the management of natural resources. But the nation’s land policy has been hampered by challenges — from failing institutions to population pressures. These pressures have spelled more competition for smaller plots of land.

Uganda operates under four types of land tenure as recognised by its 1995 Constitution. About 80% of Uganda’s land falls under ‘customary’ tenure, which remains largely unregistered and insecure, despite being codified by the 1998 Land Act law. In south-central and western Uganda, much of the land falls under the ‘Mailo/Native Freehold system’ (essentially Freehold).

Freehold and leasehold tenures are scattered nationally. Each tenure system has its own registry: the mailo/native freehold and customary registries are decentralised; the leasehold and freehold registries are centralised. A major objective of the DeSILISOR project was to unify information systems and decentralise operations of all registries (other than the customary registry) under the newly created MZOs to eliminate multiple allocations of land rights.

Transforming tradition
In the past, MLHUD overlooked the long and arduous process of making a land transaction. In freehold or leasehold cases, most business had to take place in the capital adding costs and frustration to title-seekers traveling to-and-from offices. The poor infrastructure and lack of oversight encouraged corruption.

Despite previous attempts to overhaul the system, land records were often in poor condition. The MLHUD largely lacked indices and storage space. As many as 60% of the paper records were nearly unsalvageable. The irreplaceable titles were exposed to everything from rats to beetles to age and humidity.

Using Thomson Reuters Aumentum technology, the De- SILISoR project began the complex task of rehabilitating and reorganising the registries. Thousands of maps and documents were scanned and indexed. Staff began linking parcels maintained by the Department of Surveys and Mapping with titles maintained by the Department of Land Registration. In this way, geographic information was overlaid to uncover spatial patterns. Topographic information was overlaid with parcel information, and then demographic information. This allowed the system to check the geometry of existing parcels and draw new parcels (particularly in rural areas), and also to share the data with other projects. If, for example, an industrial park or proposed highway were being developed, the government could use the centralised data to determine the human and environmental impact of the project.

Most significantly, the linked parcels allowed officials to visualise areas of land conflict in ways that were simply impossible by looking through paper property records. With state-of the-art aerial imagery overlayed with scanned, vectorised and geo-referenced cadastral sheets, the digital system provided a powerful portrait of overlapping land rights. “That just was not possible when [land management] was conducted manually,” says Oput.

With the record restoration underway, the project concentrated on decentralising the land management administration. The centerpiece of the initiative was establishing the six MZOs. These centres served as “one-stop-shops” for the pilot zones, equipped to handle functions like surveying, planning, land administration, valuation and registration. These decentralised offices saved title-seekers the time and expense of traveling to the capital for transactions. “Now, if you have to do a procedure for Jinja, you go to [the office in] Jinja,” says Orlova.

Next, the project addressed the inefficiencies and corruption in the titling-process. The manual system involved leafing through stacks of dusty paper each time someone requested a record. Searches were time-consuming — and often unsuccessful. On an average, each transaction involved 12 procedures. Staffers were unqualified and often unscrupulous. About 35% of complaints garnered from the old system concerned fraud and counterfeiting. Another 33% were related to delays in transactions and the inability to find documents. In response, DeSILISoR embarked on a comprehensive training programme. Policy guidelines were devised. Audit trails were added to provide unparalleled oversight of office operations.

Not business as usual
Under the new system, a title-seeker presents his documents at an MZO reception desk. Assuming that his records are complete, he is handed an acknowledgement letter generated by the system. The letter officially recognises receipt of his documents. From there, the client’s role is finished. After he is told approximately when his transaction will be processed, he can return home.

The system then records every step of the transaction. The file is traced to each clerk in the office. All documents are scanned. Documents are automatically generated by the system and bar-coded. Not only does this cut off potential fraud, it also adds a level of accountability that didn’t exist in the old system. “You know who-did-what with your file,” Orlova says. “You know if your file is stuck somewhere or if it’s been sitting on someone’s desk for two weeks.”

The biggest challenge to modernising Ugandan’s land administration was human capacity. Many of the MLHUD employees lacked the skillset needed to work in an archive or registry office. Prior to joining the ministry, few had experience with information technology. “Some people had never held a mouse,” says Orlova. “They would turn it upside down and wait for something to happen.” In order to make the system work, DeSILISoR had to recruit, train and motivate the new staff. Over the course of several months, training sessions were conducted to help the staffers become conversant with the new registry and cadastre systems. To date, more than 200 staffers have been trained on everything from basic IT skills to the details of the LIS process. “It is like night and day,” says Oput. “These were people who had no computer skills. Now, they are competent after just six months.”

Still the project hasn’t achieved its goal in entirety. So far, public awareness campaigns haven’t dispelled persistent gossip about whether the offices are open and the system is functioning. The next phase of the project will include an aggressive public awareness campaign focusing heavily on radio ads.

Already Orlova says she has seen signs of increased confidence among Ugandan citizens. Each month, rising numbers of Ugandans have walked through the MZO doors. At its onset, she says, the MZOs averaged about 400 transactions per month — in total over all six district offices. By spring, that number had jumped to 1,200, then 2,000. Today, the MZOs handle about 5,000 transactions each month.

“People are more and more certain that this isn’t something that will disappear anytime soon,” says Orlova. “They are starting to trust it.”