Digital Titles: How soon can they be realized in Developing Countries’ context?

Assurance of the security of tenure and sanctity of title is one of the key ingredients required to spur investment opportunities in any economy. Security of tenure is hinged on some state backed certificate of title or lease. For most jurisdictions based on the Torrens title system, this title document as registered in an official register of title constitutes the evidence of ownership. In principle, this system is very simple to maintain, since only a look at the register confirms the authenticity of the title. In practice however, there have been instances where multiple titles are registered for the same parcel, through corruption driven malpractices. When these are implemented, then the resultant system’s output of the Digital Titles would constitute the only evidence required to confirm title. By leveraging on the stringent requirements of the underlying database architecture, issues of multiple titles for the same parcel would be relegated to history. Such systems will help provide a unified way in which land information would be managed centrally and efficiently across the entire jurisdiction.

By streamlining the processes leading up to the entries into the register, assurance of the title can be realized. Some of the strategies that have been followed in successful jurisdictions include the automation of workflows supporting the titling process, re-engineering of business processes, social engineering to deal with corruption motivated malpractices, formulation of legislation and regulations relating to the management of land information and the stringent enforcement of these legal instruments. The Government Victoria in Australia has succeeded in this venture and they have automated their land title processes all the way to the realization of the Digital Title . This online portal features a one-stop shop for dealing with Property and Land transactions. Other one-shop solutions include the Singapore Land Authority , Landgate which operates land management in Western Australia , Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia in Canada.

Developing economies have been making steady progress in this respect. Some of the definite leaders in this direction include Philippines through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources . A number of promising prospects have been reported in Africa. Leaders in this respect are Rwanda and South Africa. Other countries where digital land reforms are at different stages include: Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

How to get there?

Is there really a systematic pathway that can be followed in the quest to end up with fully digital titles? If we were to follow the narrative by those economies that already have gone through this, there are parallels that can be drawn.

  1. There must be a deliberate effort to generate a backup or archive of all existing information. This would proceed along the lines of securing all supporting paper based documents. The documents that come to mind here are those supporting a particular title to land. These include parcel files that hold correspondence files, deed plans, survey plans, allotment letters, green cards and white cards and any other document that would support.
  2. The next thing is to map out the processes and procedures that are followed towards the titling process. This mapping out process has the objective of identifying related processes, the various players in each process and linkages amongst related processes. Once these are mapped out, then the processes need to be re-evaluated to identify those that can be reengineered to make them more efficient, cost effective and support timely delivery of services.
  3. Data conversion and the automation of reengineered workflows can proceed in parallel.
    1. The conversion in this case being more than the usual scanning and archival, to a more detailed digitization venture where data scanned is extracted and ingested into a spatially aware database. The data conversion is especially critical since data is the mainstay of the resultant digital Land Information System (LIS). The data being handled is often times running for decades if not centuries and as such is quite voluminous and requires efficient strategies for its conversion. One such strategy could be to identify transaction heavy regions and process these first, while in parallel, processing of less active files proceeds. This means there will be two separate data conversion threads, one for the very active files, and the second for the largely dormant files.
    2. Workflow automation is crucial since the data, the results of which will be the title, is generated by the particular workflow. If the workflows remain manual then the data generated will be paper-based, which is what we are working to move away from. Manual workflows there negates the whole idea of data conversion, unless there is a strategy put in place that at some defined point in time, there would be other data conversion phases. This may be allowed to happen at the beginning as the systems are being developed but should be discontinued once the systems are rolled out into production mode.
  4. Enactment of legislation and regulations to manage the new digital land information dispensation is the next natural consequence. The legislation and regulations prevailing are likely to be geared towards a paper-based economy and will need to be revised or repealed by commensurate ones that will then support the new order of working. Some of the features that need to be incorporated include: recognition of the digital versions as authentic and state guaranteed proofs supporting ownership claims. This is intentioned at cushioning any entity that requires the proof from harm that they would otherwise be exposed to through acceptance of these digital proofs.

Some of the benefits that this new dispensation affords include: enhancing security of collaterals, reducing cost of credit by reducing the premium on risk exposure by financial institutions and minimizing loss of revenue by streamlining the process of valuation and verification of ownership of parcels pledged as security.

  1. Generation of official digital documents as alternatives to the official paper documents. Since the legal hurdle is already overcome from the above step, the digital title, and any other soft copy document can be furnished from the system.
  2. Putting in place secure, robust and fail-safe infrastructure to support the LIS. The data and system that result from the process are a huge investment and naturally, it should be expected that security, robustness and reliability would be finely ingrained into the various offerings from the systems so developed.
  3. Ensuring change management is expertly navigated and the human resource capacity built will to a large extent ensure that the systems when put in place will get used. Failure to factor this would result in all the effort turning out to be an undesirable white elephant, with the old order of things being perpetuated despite the enormous investment time wise and monetary wise.

How soon?

This is the trillion dollar question! Given the amount of data that requires converting, the amount of workflows that need mapping and reengineering, time and money are very essential commodities. If we were to use the Kenyan example a conservative figure of US$ 79 Million to get the process started. If such amounts were to be availed, then within 3-4 years digital titles can become a reality. Of course the process of conversion of data would run much longer but at least 4 years from now many digital products would be available.

These digital documents when secured as discussed will ultimately enhance the security of tenure and sanctity of title.

David Kuria
About David Kuria 4 Articles
I'm passionate about GIS and related spatial technologies and their application in unraveling some of society's problems that have a spatial dimension.
  • Willy Simons

    Move change management to the top, since the development of a transparent and secure LIS goes against the vested interest. Compare the cost of US$ 79 million with the losses resulting from fraudulent land transactions and mismanagement of land rights. It probably runs into billions!

    • Steve Omondi

      And more so it cripples the whole economy since land is the backbone of most developing nations’ economy. As if that is not enough fraud has negatively impacted citizens desire to seek transparent service provision, everyone is open to using unconventional means to receive services – making the situation almost irreversible. The attitude surely has to be checked from top

  • Great insights. Looking forward to having such systems in place for my country

  • Steve Omondi

    Prof, would you mind to address the issue of “System integration” from an insider and expert perspective…I think we are more focused in software integration, however, there could be more to it. How are we handling Inter and Intra-Agency integration as a form on system integration? For example, the People and Agencies charged with Land administration roles, they are part of the system that need to be integrated right?