Patrick Kelley, a first-year MA student, is the Bologna Bureau Chief for the SAIS Observer.

With the recent expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations has unveiled its new Sustainable Development Goals, central to which is the goal of ending hunger, allowing nations to focus on their economic and social development.

The only global region where hunger is projected to worsen in the next 20 years is Sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is a paradox. A region that is home to 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated, arable land must also import food to nourish its population.[I][II] For Africa to achieve the Sustainable Development goals, it must work to address this paradox.

However, in many cases, the security of land ownership is equal in importance to the farming methods used to produce a quality crop. The American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources newsletter[III]notes that, “one of the most fundamental barriers to Africa’s development is insecure land tenure, which leads to poorly administered or nonexistent land governance and the waste of resources.”

The newsletter also notes that many African nations have an unstable dual system of land tenure: statutory ownership, a system left by the colonizers, and customary ownership, which is lineage-based and deemed less important than statutory ownership, causing conflicts when two parties claim the same plot of land under competing legal frameworks. This confusion must be addressed. Without an enforced statute protecting a landowner’s rights, why invest time and labor into what could eventually be, literally, a fruitless endeavor?

With guaranteed land tenure, property owners can expect a number of benefits. The most basic among them is the ability to reap the rewards of an investment — or crop yield — that is protected by law. But the benefits extend beyond farming. Having secure tenure of one’s land — whether it is a farm, mine, fishery or business — allows the owner to attract outside investment and obtain credit. On a macroeconomic level, an institutional framework that secures land rights is more likely to attract foreign investment by rendering such investments more secure.

Secure property rights have been fundamental to the growth and development of nations. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson includes property rights as one of his six reasons why the West rose to outperform “the rest.” Ferguson strengthens his case for the importance of property rights in citing the divergent examples of the United States and Gran Colombia, the state that preceded modern-day Colombia, which at its peak encompassed parts of Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela. As both countries simultaneously expanded, the United States guaranteed the right to own land to many willing to settle in unknown, often inhospitable places. Gran Colombia, however, concentrated legal land ownership in the hands of the elite. Whereas the US eventually rose to become the world’s foremost economic power, Gran Colombia eventually disintegrated, and its successor states were plagued by economic and political stability through much of the twentieth century; Ferguson argues that the decline of Gran Colombia was precipitated largely by the insecurity of property rights and the weakness of the rule of law, while the rise of the US was driven by its its greater security in these areas.[IV]

African nations should take heed of these historical lessons. Travis and Gina Sheets, Senior Fellows at The Sagamore Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank, shared stories of their work at Liberia International Christian College, where the couple works to expand adoption of sustainable farming practices. During her first stint in Liberia, Gina recalls waking to find that a sizable portion of her successful corn crop had been stolen, a testament to both the rarity of successful crops in Liberia as well as the impunity with which such thefts may be committed, given the weak precedent for legal recourse. Such narratives show how agriculture beyond the scale of small, easily-defended subsistence farms is disincentivized in the country, impinging upon its prospects for achieving food security.  

By making appropriate amendments to their legal frameworks and allocating greater manpower towards the enforcement of property rights, African nations could create greater incentives for large-scale agricultural production and investment, thereby making significant strides towards eradicating hunger and promoting human and economic development in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

These reforms have begun in earnest in some of Africa’s bellwether economies. As of 2014, the International Property Rights Index ranked 97 countries in terms of property rights security; of the listed states, Africa claims four in the top half of the index: Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, and South Africa.[V] Unfortunately, all of the other 18 listed states fall in the bottom half of the rankings, with Chad, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Burundi respectively ranked at 92, 93, 94 and 95.

Empirical research makes clear the link between robust property rights and economic freedom. According to a 2015 Heritage Foundation study, the only Sub Saharan African states to achieve economic freedom scores above 60 percent are Botswana, Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa, all states that ranked in the top half of the IPRI’s top 97 (with the exception of Rwanda, which is unlisted).[VI] The Washington, D.C.-based think tank describes economic freedom as, “fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.”

With only ten percent of Africa’s tillable land legally registered, it is clear the majority of Africa’s farmers would benefit from legal protection. The fact that 33 percent of Sub Saharan Africa’s population remains undernourished in spite of abundant arable land underscores the urgency of achieving such reforms.[VII] Large-scale legal changes are undoubtedly easier to write about than achieve, but the historical blueprint for this kind of development is clear. If states in the potential-rich region that is sub-Saharan Africa take the initiative to implement the legal changes that would secure land rights for their citizens, it is far more likely that Africa will rise to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, ending hunger and paving the way towards further growth and development.   


[I] Leke, Acha, Susan Lund, Charles Roxburgh, and Arend Van Wamelen. "What's Driving Africa's Growth." What's Driving Africa's Growth. June 1, 2010. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[II] USDA. "Agricultural Imports Soar in Sub-Saharan Africa." Agricultural Imports Soar in Sub-Saharan Africa. August 20, 2013. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[III] Falk, Andrew. "LAND TENURE SECURITY AND ITS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA." Http:// August 1, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[IV] "Property Map: American Expansion – U.S.A. and Gran Colombia." PBS. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[V] "IPRI 2015." IPRI 2015. 2013. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[VI] "2015 Economic Freedom Heat Map." 2015 World Economic Freedom Levels: Heat Map for Continents and Countries. 2015. Accessed December 7, 2015.

[VII] "Food Security and Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa Building a Case for More Public Support." Http:// Accessed December 7, 2015.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Maasai Village 01" by Nicor is licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0