Why Is the Omidyar Network So Focused on Land Rights? Ask the Cocoa Farmers of Ghana

A cocoa farmer in ghana

A cocoa farmer in ghana

Over 70 percent of the world’s population lives on land for which they don’t hold formal rights or legal documentation to show proof of ownership. While there are avenues to which they can obtain the proper documentation, these services are often complicated and expensive for struggling rural farmers who especially need such protection. This is a major global development challenge, and it's one that the Omidyar Network has been working for a long time through its Property Rights initiative.  

Related: Here’s How the Omidyar Network Wants to Create More Landowners

In trademark ON fashion, it's used both traditional grants and venture investments to push forward this work. Most recently, the Omidyar Network announced an investment in Landmapp, an Amsterdam-based property rights company aimed at helping smallholder farmers obtain the proper legal documentation to prove ownership and protect their land holdings. Established in 2015, Landmapp employs field surveyors who use GPS devices to map out farm plots. That information is then verified and claims are submitted to the proper authorities.

The company’s first country of operation is Ghana and its services are directed primarily toward cocoa farmers—people who now earn around 84 cents a day. While the service isn’t free, it is described as “affordable.”

We've written before about the challenges of West Africa's cocoa farmers, and what philanthropy has been doing to help them. 

RelatedSweet, But Bitter: A Foundation Puts Up a Fortune to Help Poor Cocoa Farmers

Cocoa production is essential to Ghana’s economy, accounting for over nine percent of the country’s agricultural GDP. But, despite increased global demand, Ghanaian cocoa farmers face a multitude of challenges—older farmers are reaching their life expectancy and younger generations are reluctant to get into farming in favor of other, more lucrative pursuits. Poverty and labor abuses are rife in this area

Then there's the matter of land rights, which can leave cocoa farmers in a vulnerable state of limbo—investing grueling sweat equity in plots of land with few guarantees about the future. 

Can new technological solutions offer greater hope for cocoa farmers? That's the bet here. Since around 2008, the Omidyar Network has invested over $50 million toward “deploying transformative technologies that can fundamentally improve the way property rights are identified, publicized, and protected.”

There are a number of property rights outfits that offer their services free of charge. Makes sense, particularly in places like Ghana where cocoa farmers earn less than a dollar a day. So, why is Omidyar investing in a company that charges a fee? Is the move yet for more grist for critics who've charged that this funder backs ideas that profit off the poor? 

According to Omidyar, one ongoing problem with offering property documentation services for free is that private sector companies failed to deliver on their promises and government programs often ran out of money before any received any documents. A for-profit venture like Landmapp, in contrast, has the potential to be both sustainable and scalable. 

Prior to Omidyar’s investment, Landmapp had already sold over 2,000 documents to Ghanaian farmers. According to Omidyar venture partner Peter Rabley, this demonstrates “that farmers in Ghana understand the value of land documentation and are willing to pay for the legal protection they offer.” Additionally, Landmapp’s approach using innovative geospatial and mobile technology combined with an experienced team can potentially lead to a replicable model that can be easily deployed in other least developed countries around the world.

Land rights are becoming an increasingly important issue in philanthropy because it speaks to so many other global challenges including access to education, food security, gender equality, and economic security. While Omidyar is a leader in the field, a number of like-minded funders also interested here including the Gates, Rockefeller, Ford, and MasterCard foundations. With big money like that fighting for the rights of smallholder farmers around the world, we should be able to expect more movement in this critical area.   

Related: Land Rights in Poor Countries is a Hot Cause for More Funders. Here’s Why