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CHRISTOPHER BURKE: Uganda’s national land information system lead in Africa

Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda (PHOTO /Courtesy)

KAMPALA —Uganda has taken full advantage of the latest advances in geospatial technology and the country’s National Land Information System (NLIS) is among the most modern and comprehensive land information systems found anywhere in Africa. The NLIS has now been in operation for nine years and utilizes state of the art features that have drastically improved security and made improvements to service delivery. Last month, the Minister of Lands Judith Nabakooba launched the NLIS public portal that provides members of the public access to conduct online searches after payment of a ten thousand shillings fee for each search.

Land management systems require substantial time and investment. There is need for legislation, infrastructure and human resource capacity to operate and maintain such a project. Uganda’s NLIS is the result of consistent work and planning stretching back over 25 years. The initial preparations started with a number of specific provisions in the 1995 Constitution that included the Land Act.

The 1998 Land Act was intended to facilitate the decentralization of land administration and management that necessitated a massive bureaucratic structure that proved difficult to implement. The 10 year Land Sector Strategic Plan (LSSP) addressed many of the challenges identified at that time with strategies to review Uganda’s policy and legal framework, strengthen protection and the rights of vulnerable groups, support decentralization of land administration, modernize the land registry to improve land service delivery, provide public information on land rights and develop a National Land Policy.

The pilot phase of the NLIS was implemented from 2010 to 2013 by the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD) with support from the French company IGN FI and funds provided by the World Bank in accordance with the LSSP. Known as the Design, Supply, Installation, Implementation of the Land Information System and Securing of Land Records (DeSILISoR) Project, the project embarked on the development of the land information system (LIS) by utilizing a high resolution orthophoto or geometrically corrected base map. It also involved the digital conversion of over 550 thousand freehold, leasehold and mailo titles, the integration of these digitized titles into the system, the establishment of six Ministry Zonal Office (MZOs) and the training of staff to operate and maintain the system.

In 2013, Government initiated the Land Sector Strategic Plan II (LSSPII) 2013-2023 to: 1) restore the integrity of Uganda’s Land Registration system, 2) modernize and enhance the ability of the land sector to deliver services aligned with the needs of the economy, 3) establish a modern land information and records system, 4) develop the institutional capacity and human capital required to ensure inclusive access, equity and social justice, 5) decentralize land services closer to the people, and 6) eliminate land-based constraints to Uganda’s private sector competitiveness to facilitate investment and contribute to national development.

Following the successful outcomes of the pilot, the NLIS was taken to scale in the national roll-out of the system with the Design, Supply, Installation and Implementation of National Land Information System Infrastructure (DeSINLISI) Project under the LSSP II. Implemented between February 2015 and February 2020, this phase was also supported by a consortium led by IGN FI with support from the World Bank and involved the integration of land registration, land administration, surveying and mapping, physical planning, property valuation and finalization of the process of transforming land records in digital format. The vast majority of paper titles were computerised and verified in the system. Only titles with irregularities were left out.

The system decentralized land governance with the establishment of 22 self-contained one-stop Ministry Zonal Offices (MZOs) across Uganda. The NLIS quickly demonstrated an impact with the strengthening of land tenure security, a reduction in corruption, improvement in service delivery and consolidation of revenue.

Double plotting has been eliminated and the illicit tampering with titles made extremely difficult. Paper records can be lost or forged, but all information on the NLIS is indelibly recorded including the date, time, location and individual responsible for the adjustments. While this feature cannot in itself prevent fraud, the people involved can be held accountable and illegitimate actions can be corrected. Access to land registration information through the online portal represents a substantial improvement in transparency

A comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the NLIS is yet to be done in order to understand the full economic impact of the project. However, the initial results run counter to the usual challenges associated with the majority of capital infrastructure projects. The NLIS was completed according to schedule and had already generated more than sufficient revenue to pay for itself before it was launched.

According to recent data from MLHUD, the NLIS has generated a cumulative total of US$240 million in revenue since it was commissioned in 2013 to the first half 2021/2022 financial year. This represents a 333% percent return on the total US$72 million investment received as a World Bank loan. The NLIS cost US$36 million and an additional US$36 million was required to cover the cost of the support infrastructure including the base map, the geodetic reference network, construction of the National Land Information Centre (NLIC) and MZOs in addition to the revisions and development of supporting legislation. The NLIS has proved an outstanding success and represents a stark contrast to other public investments across Africa in roads, railway and energy projects that suffer protracted delays, cost over-runs and minimal returns on investment.

The system is of course not without challenges. Training and capacity building of the necessary human resources is ongoing. Work continues to be updated and aligned to relevant legislation including the Electronics Transactions Act and the Electronic Signature Act. Other related legislation include the Surveys and Mapping Draft Bill, Registration of Titles Bill and the draft new Land Valuation Act are currently undergoing adjustments. Plans are also in advanced stages to strengthen integration of the NLIS with other government agencies and services.

The NLIS is only applicable to registered land which accounts for less than 20 percent of all the land across the country. MLHUD is about to launch the second phase of a programme for the systematic demarcation of plots and the issuance of freehold titles and certificates of customary ownership (CCOs) in different parts of Uganda with support from the EU and the World Bank that will help populate the NLIS.

Uganda today is considered a leader in land governance across Africa. Over the past decade, a steady stream of delegations from Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zambia, Mali, Ethiopia, Malawi and Ivory Coast have visited the country on bench marking tours. In 2016, the Government of Tanzania launched the pilot phase of the Integrated Land Management Information System (ILMIS) that closely resembled Uganda’s NLIS in form and function.

The NLIS has made a strong contribution to the development of Uganda’s economy and realization of multiple Social and Development Goals (SDGs) and realization of the Government’s Vision 2040.

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Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda. He has over 25 years’ experience working on communications, development, governance and peace in Asia and Africa.

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