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December 21st, 2017
Infrastructure • Finance

Land Reform in Rwanda

In 1994, after the Rwandan genocide, returning refugees and an increasing population were putting a great strain on Rwanda's informal system of land tenure. The government wanted to address different land ownership claims to avoid new conflict, and to codify the process of land tenure to help reduce poverty. In 2009, the government began its Land Tenure Regularisation programme, creating a land registry to help Rwandans claim land title via legally valid land transactions.

The initiative

The land reform in Rwanda comprised a series of initiatives that aimed to tackle the emerging uncertainties about land ownership. Given the history of violent conflict, the Rwandan Constitution of 2003, the National Land Policy of 2004 and the Organic Land Law of 2005 all incorporated land ownership and gave it a formal legal basis. The Land Tenure Regularisation (LTR) programme was then established to register and administer land ownership in Rwanda.

After legal reforms had taken place, the government wanted to use the LTR programme to allocate title to every plot of land and create an all-encompassing national land registry to deal with the conflicting claims. It was meant to implement the new laws and “provide for full equal rights to both wife and husband and to all children, through the systematic land registration process…, which means a process of regularising the ownership of existing land for the existing landowners”.[4]

The titling project began officially in 2009, with the National Land Centre maintaining the national land registry as part of the Ministry of Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water and Mines. In 2011, the government decided to integrate the registry into the Mapping Department of the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority (RNRA). The LTR process can thus be split into two informal phases:

  • Firstly, the National Land Centre - and subsequently the RNRA - succeeded in completing the recording of 10.4 million parcels of land into the national land registry by 2012.[5]
  • Secondly, once the registration process was complete, the RNRA was able to include registry maintenance as part of its portfolio. Its aim was to become a decentralised and client-focused institution that could administer 10 million properties. This vision enabled it to “put in place and operationalise an efficient system of land administration and land management that secure[s] land ownership, promote[s] investment in land for socioeconomic development and [reduces poverty]”.[6]

The challenge

In 2012, Rwanda was the most densely populated country in Africa, with 416 inhabitants per km2. Prior to the land reforms of 2004, most land in Rwanda had been acquired for a limited tenure through different practices such as inheritance, leasing, borrowing, gifting, informal occupation, and government land allocation. Having a piece of land to live on and farm was an important economic asset, which also had a special social and cultural status for Rwandans. In 2012, 88 percent of the labour force worked in agriculture and land.[1]

Competing claims to land and the history of conflict in Rwanda had put pressure on the informal land ownership system. In addition, by the early 2000s, former refugees who had fled the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide were returning to the country, and population growth was accelerating by 7.3 percent in 1999.[2] The Rwandan government allocated land to returning refugees to prevent further conflict. However, these pieces of land were often already being used by other families, and a formal procedure to allocate land ownership became unavoidable in order to avoid further conflict.[3]

The public impact

The major impact of the new land administration reforms lay in the more effective processing and transaction handling of land title. Previously, it had taken up to one month to process a land title. With the new administration processes in place, this elapsed time was reduced to three days, and “in contrast to March 2012, when people collected only 924,086 of 8 million completed title documents, by June 2017, 7.16 million landowners had collected their titles”.[7] Of these 8 million transactions, however, only 1.8 percent were officially registered in the financial year 2015-16, which caused researchers to believe that a still larger number of informal sales and acquisitions by inheritance are taking place.

Nonetheless, the World Bank's annual Doing Business Index showed that on the indicator "Measurement of the ease of registering property", Rwanda had jumped from 61st place in 2012 to 4th in the world in 2017.[8] Furthermore, in order to define the boundaries of plots of land, local "para-surveyors" were employed. “Over the lifetime of the programme, 110,000 people were employed, of which 99 percent were drawn from the communities in which the work was being carried out. This equates to approximately 1 percent of the Rwandan population."[9]

Lastly, more women than men officially own a plot of land with an official title document. The genocide resulted in many female-headed households, which first registered their land during the 2012 registration process. Yet, in 2016, 63.7 percent of titles were owned by women or co-owned by men and women, which indicates that men were not using the new official transaction mechanisms to "grab" land from women.[10]

Stakeholder engagement

Throughout the LTR process, cooperation between the land ministry and the RNRA remained positive, while engaging with local districts and communities was one of the core ideas behind the land registry.

After 2012, the registry team had to win over sceptical colleagues in other government departments so they would continue to support the LTR programme. It was especially difficult to get the finance ministry - which contributed a large proportion of funding - to agree to the required budget provisions after the registry was incorporated into the RNRA. There was a common misconception that, after all parcels of land had been registered, the LTR programme had achieved its goal. Emmanuel Nkurunziza, a professional surveyor and urban planner who held a doctorate in public policy, remarked that “officials from the finance ministry kept telling us our work is done and that they don't see any reason to enhance our budgets”.[11]

To raise the awareness of local landowners about registering land transactions such as sales, gifts and inheritances, the RNRA organised an annual event called “Land Week”. Its purpose was "to bring together everyone involved in land administration and then to spend one week in every district".[12] A highly qualified team of notaries, district land officers, lawyers, officials from the Rwanda Revenue Authority, and the five provincial registrars toured every district of Rwanda in the summer months of May, June and July each year from 2014 to 2017. They reached local areas by renting a bus and converting it to a mobile data centre with internet connection that allowed for swift registration. Attendees were guaranteed that, rather than the usual month of processing time, registering transactions would be completed within a day.

Political commitment

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has been the country's political leader since 1994, and regained power for a third term in 2017, winning with a stated 99 percent of the vote.[13]

While his long reign has drawn criticism from western observers, he has remained the biggest supporter of the land reform in Rwanda since its inception, because he was convinced that land registration would ultimately improve the country's development.[14] The former deputy director of the RNRA has observed that: “A key success factor was the high level of political will from the highest office in the country - the president himself supported the programme… The political support from all corners of government allowed us to be innovative. We simply couldn't have achieved what we did without that”. [15]

The registry team from the RNRA still lobbied for broad government support. Rwanda's improvement in the World Bank's Doing Business index helped convince government officials that it was worth the expenditure of their political capital. It was a major goal of Kagame's government and its overall vision for development to perform well in the World Bank's index, and the RNRA team was able to argue successfully that “sustaining and further improving [Rwanda's] Doing Business score depended on maintaining the land registry”.[16]

Public confidence

A 2012 survey by the RNRA indicated low levels of engagement by the public with the land registry. Some Rwandans feared that their taxes would increase if they collected their title deeds, which discouraged them from signing up. Others were simply unaware of the new procedures, with some believing that “their title documents would be safer if the government held onto them”. Overall only one in every eight landowners had collected their land title, prompting the RNRA to initiate a drastic redesign of their PR strategy.[17]

The RNRA created a major public awareness campaign, which aimed to educate Rwandans by explaining that “if you don't have a title, the land is not yours, because registration of land is legally mandatory”.[18] Messages were spread via television, newspaper, radio and social media. Radio advertising proved particularly important in reaching rural areas, as 64 percent of households in the country owned radios. At the same time, district officers were engaged to spread the word in local communities. Ultimately, the campaign paid off, as by 2013 the number of landholders collecting their titles had increased to more than 4.6 million.

Clarity of objectives

The Rwandan government's overall vision for supporting the land registry stemmed from two essential beliefs. Firstly, the consolidation of land holdings was an incentive to increase agricultural productivity and investment, leading to greater economic development. Secondly, there was a pressing need to reduce racial tensions after the genocide by providing a sound mechanism for landownership.[19]

To achieve that vision in practice, the government developed a strategic policy road map, which included the LTR process. It had the following two objectives:

  • “Register all land in Rwanda for the first time.”[20]
  • “Support the design and implementation of the new Land Administration System under the 2005 OLL.”[21]

Strength of evidence

Evidence for LTR programme was carefully collected for more than three years after its launch, and was also reviewed over time. Given Rwanda's completely new legal system, it was important for the project to test the right approach systematically before launching the RNRA land registry in 2009.

Up until 2004, according to World Bank estimates, 90 percent of Rwanda's arable land was governed by the law of custom rather than property law. The new 2003 constitution and the incorporation of written legal principles that now governed land titles were completely new to Rwanda's society. They were inspired by a broader view held by the World Bank and other African countries, that “private ownership of land fosters more effective utilisation of and productive investment in land”.[21] Evidence for LTR in Rwanda had relied mainly on studies and systematic testing of different approaches before land registration began.[22]

From 2006 to 2009, the Rwandan government piloted the most feasible approaches for enforcing the new legislation, resulting in a Strategic Road Map for LTR.[23] They conducted field trials of recording land claims for almost 15.000 plots of land within three different districts. From these trials, the RNRA drew important conclusions on using aerial photography as a means to establish a national registry. It recommended a decentralised, community-based approach “against the background of government's wider decentralisation policies”, which included local and district workers. It was recommended that the registration of almost 8 million land parcels could be completed within 2 years.[24]

However, after data about almost all the existing parcels of land was captured by the land registry, which it had achieved by 2012, it then had to fulfil a second objective of creating a land administration process. For that, a detailed transition plan was developed, which included a list of activities, cost estimates, and other deliverables. Apart from the lack of public awareness (see Public Confidence), these new surveys showed that only 31 locations across the country actually offered land titling services. Hence, the team decided to broaden their administration services on all levels and to create a manual for training more staff.[25]


In order to reach rural areas and local communities more effectively, the land registry recruited and trained para-surveyors from villages where the LTR programme was in operation. This helped to build up a level of trust with villagers, who had access to expert knowledge about land registration. Yet by 2012, internal surveys revealed that, overall, public trust remained relatively low, with only one in eight landowners collecting their land title. This led the RNRA to develop an even more substantial public awareness campaign (see Public Confidence).[26]

When the national land registry was transferred to the RNRA in 2011, funding remained an issue. Donor funding was capped at GBP42.2 million, which the RNRA was able to top up until 2015 with an additional GBP3.5 million of support from the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK. Initially however, the national registry and its administrative services were meant to be self-sufficient and cover all its costs based on transaction charges. “Experience from the field has found that current fee levels are not affordable for the rural population”.[27] While the RNRA made an effort to exempt low-income Rwandans from the land administration fees, which led to an increase in land title collection by 99 percent in 2012, transaction fees remained fixed at RWF27,000 (about GBP25). The fee structure did not take different income levels into account, making it harder for poorer citizens to pay the fees.[28]


The management of land title registration was based on a centralised procedure that captured 10 million parcels of land in a period of two years. The RNRA recognised when they took over the land registry in 2011 that the management structure had to be decentralised to provide better land administration services to the people and meet increasing demand.

On that basis, the registry introduced a team of sector land managers into their district land bureaus. “The managers' roles were to share advice and information on how to register transactions. The sector land managers also provided clients with all relevant application forms, and, most important, they were trained as notaries so they could legally endorse contracts.”[29] They collected land applications and contracts and drove to the district office once a week to file them. (For security reasons, the printing of land titles was only done in district offices.) In cooperation with the land ministry and local governments, this led to the establishment of so-called one-stop centres in each district to provide government services from different departments at district level and therefore closer to local communities.

The registry redesigned its existing Land Tenure Regularisation Support System to allow for a more widespread use among district officers and provincial registrars of the new Land Administration Information System (LAIS). “The registry stored all of the land data on a computer server located in Kigali, using a virtual private network, a tool that encrypted and secured the flow of data between the districts and the head office. And the registry installed high-speed fibre internet connections in all district offices to connect them to the head office in Kigali.”[30]


In order to monitor and measure progress, the RNRA conducts quantitative and qualitative baseline surveys, which provide information on how performance indicators are developing. The focus of these indicators is principally on the overall strategy, management and impact of the LTR programme. In that regard, the African Development Bank has condensed the monitoring approach into six strategic questions that are measured by the surveys:

  1. "Are we doing the right thing (strategy and direction)?
  2. "Is the plan being implemented effectively (management and governance)?
  3. "Are outputs appropriate and do they meet the required standards?
  4. "Are people accessing and sharing the resulting information?
  5. "What effects or changes has LTR contributed to (outcomes and impacts)?
  6. "How does the changing political, economic, social and organisational climate affect plans and intended outcomes (context)?"[31]

It is important that these indicators and the impact of the registry are consistent with the Rwandan government's overall goals of reducing poverty and increasing gender equality, social harmony and economic development.

In addition to these surveys, RNRA Lands & Mapping produces:

  • A number of digital records
  • Monthly, quarterly and annual reports on the LTR programme
  • Annual surveys by questionnaire of NGOs, civil society organisations, and research institutes.[32]


After the RNRA became the national land registry and decentralised its functions to the local level, it was easier to cooperate with different ministries and the private sector.

The one-stop centres in each district were created jointly with ministries to provide different government services. They “made it much easier to issue things like land titles, electricity, water or building permits, because staff are working together as a team in the same department. The sharing of information became easier”.[32]

In addition, after LAIS was completed in 2013, it gave banks, ministries and the Rwanda Development Board access to land title information. This was particularly useful for banks in processing mortgage applications. “Credit institutions could easily access reliable information on landowners, the size of their property, and whether there were any legal encumbrances.”[33] The registry also designed a tool to allow any member of the public to check upon the status of their plot of land via their mobile phone.

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