African Journal of Agricultural Research Vol. 4 (1), pp. 001-013, January 2009
Available online at http://www.academicjournals.org/AJAR
ISSN 1991-637X © 2009 Academic Journals
Full Length Research Paper
Land ownership security in Malawi
Leeds University Business School, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK. Leeds University Business School, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: +44(0)7810202942.
Accepted 23 December, 2008
This study examines factors that determine land ownership security among households in the rural
areas (customary tenure sector) in Malawi. A framework for understanding land ownership security in
the customary sector is proposed and using empirical data from different parts of Malawi, logistic
regression analysis shows that the developed framework helps to explain land ownership security in
practice. Though land ownership insecurity is almost negligible in the studied areas, this study has
found that households that are categorized by the framework as non-indigenous (the weakest category
of the four) are associated with a higher likelihood of feeling land tenure insecurity than the other
categories (indigenous, weakly indigenous, absolutely indigenous). The modes of land acquisition,
years that one resides in a community and gender of the household head also do determine land tenure
security and women are found to be relatively land tenure secure than men. This study argues that
outcomes from studies seeking to examine the link between land tenure security and land use efficiency
in Malawi may become clearer if the developed framework or its variants are used to model the influence
of customary land access systems on land ownership security because titling/no titling dummy
variables do not say much about land ownership security in areas where customary systems dominate.
Since women have a higher probability of feeling land tenure secure in matrilineal systems, development
projects should endeavour to empower them as well so that they may equally participate in household
level decision making as this would help them effectively use their land even in cases where their
husbands feel land tenure insecure and hence withdraw their expertise from production. Again, the
traditional system of land transfer is found to be resilient and this leads to questions about whether land
titling could be an urgent need for people in the studied areas.
Key words: Customary systems, Land tenure, matrilineal systems, Malawi, land ownership security
Land ownership security has been marked as one of the
factors that could explain the poor agricultural perfor-
mance in developing countries (Dorner, 1964; Feder and
Onchon, 1987). In this study land tenure refers to the
manner in which land is held or transferred and land te-
nure (ownership) security refers to whether the land
holder perceives that his/her land could be expropriated
or not (see Godoy et al., 1998).
Customary land transfer processes have been of inte-
rest to several researchers in several societies in Africa
(Besley, 1995; Hayes et al., 1997; Place and Otsuka,
2001). Some studies have argued that moving across
countries in Africa, one does not expect to witness a
wholesale unvarying pattern, but the unifying dimension
in most of the Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) is that cultural
specific norms play an important role (Hayes et al.,
The writings of Dorner (1964) do suggest that these
traditional land transfer processes are not very dynamic
and might not do their job well in the midst of growing
population pressure and changing factor prices. Accord-
ing to Dorner, in the absence of clearly defined land
ownership, a society where land pressure is intense
would be characterized by land ownership conflicts be-
cause renting out land may become risky as some people
would not easily return their rented in land. Some people
would stage conflicts in a bid to get access to land in the
absence of market-based solutions.
Place and Otsuka (2001) concluded that the matrilineal
consistent way of land transfer negatively affected the
rate of technology adoption in Malawi due to the risks
associated with it, partially backing the claim that some-
how some inheritance systems are not pro-efficiency.
In Malawi, three major categories for controlling land
002 Afr. J. Agric. Res.
can be distinguished namely customary land, public land,
and private land. The customary system of land tenure
has the traditional concept of considering land in a village
as belonging to the community although the individual in
the community has the right to cultivate it and sometimes
uses the land as though he was the owner (Nothale,
1982). Malawi has operated without a comprehensive
policy on land matters for a long time. The present land
holding system is a product of colonial history and
settlement patterns, agricultural policies of the one-party
era, and recent demographic trends. All these have con-
tributed to the problems that currently affect land tenure
and utilisation (MLPPS, 2002). This lack of explicit private
ownership has motivated some researchers to argue that
it is insecure.
Furthermore, public land refers to land occupied, used,
or acquired by the Government or any other land, which
is neither customary nor private. Private land refers to
land owned, held, used, or occupied under a freehold
title, a leasehold title, or a certificate of claim, which is
registered as private land. Customary land is by far the
most common form of tenure in Malawi and accounts for
69 per cent of the country’s total land and this is where
most of the smallholder farmers are located (Government
of Malawi, 2001).
The inheritance of customary land in Malawi is not
catered for under statutory law but follows the customary
law. Land is transferred predominantly through inheri-
tance from relatives and marriage is one of the means to
land access (Kishindo, 2004). Two customary systems of
inheritance, the matrilineal and the patrilineal systems
can be distinguished in Malawi. Under a matrilineal sys-
tem, chieftaincy is handed down through the female line
and so is land. Under this system, women's rights to
customary land tend to be primary. Under the matrilineal
system of marriage, a man's rightful heirs to his land are
his sister's children (Pachai, 1978). This system charac-
terises land transfers within the central and southern
regions (Ng’ong’ola, 1982; Pachai, 1978). Under the
patrilineal system, land is transferred from fathers to
sons. It is in a way a mirror image of the matrilineal one
where the powerful figure is the man other than the
Studies that endeavour to establish links between land
tenure and agricultural performance must initially esta-
blish that the systems of land tenure under study are
problematic or they must assume ownership insecurity to
finally attribute any inefficiency in agricultural production
to land tenure. Difficulties in land tenure and efficiency
studies therefore partly emanate from the fact that model-
ing context-specific land tenure systems is nontrivial. This
difficulty betrays robustness of results and policy briefs
that ensue from land tenure studies (Roth et al., 1989). In
some situations land tenure regimes may easily be mo-
delled but where customary rules drive land tenure pro-
cesses, an understanding of context specific traditions is
Indeed in settings where it has been thought that custo-
mary systems were ignorable in farming decisions (Feder
and Onchon, 1987), security on the decision maker’s side
has been comprehended in terms of the absence or pre-
sence of a title. The argument is that all farms which ope-
rate without a title should be expected to be less efficient
because the farm manager or the household head feels
insecure. By this definition the implication is that all
untitled fields in Africa are insecure and hence the cus-
tomary systems confer insecurity.
However, it is trivial to notice that many societies in
Africa have passed on their land through systems that do
not have the formal land title and their systems have
survived a test of time. It seems therefore that to restrict
oneself to the debate on presence or absence of a title
might not be very helpful in the African context. As many
have argued, in Africa it is probably the customary setting
which influences a great deal of farmers’ decisions
(Broegaard, 2005; Roth and Unruh, 1994). The fact that
these systems have survived a test of time points to the
resilience and probably dynamism inherent in them and it
may be premature to call all of them inefficient. Indeed,
despite a century of purposeful penetration by non cus-
tomary tenure ideology and legal provision, unregistered,
customary land tenure is still by far the main form of
tenure in Eastern and Southern Africa (Alden Wily, 2000).
So, what would probably be helpful would be to devise
ways of testing specific land transfer systems to establish
whether and how they threaten farm managers (how they
convey security or lack thereof) and then proceed with
any arguments about whether the implied security/inse-
curity is transferred to production, investment or conser-
More importantly also, it is quite risky to alter the basic
principles of tenure in the absence of a careful examina-
tion of the existing customary systems that govern land
transfer (Uchendu, 1969). This again implies that the
absence of an understanding of the sources of insecurity
in customary systems is a serious problem for corrective
policy. To successfully alter tenure systems, or to coin
policies that directly help those badly affected by the cus-
tomary land transfer systems, policy makers need to
have sufficient knowledge of the systems otherwise such
changes would have far reaching consequences (Par-
sons, 1971). While land tenure reforms in other countries
might have been associated with low costs, early writings
on land reform issues in Malawi (Ng’ong’ola, 1982;
Pachai, 1973) categorically suggest that reforms that
came soon after colonialism proved too expensive with-
out any tangible gains at all as they were attempted with-
out full understanding of the dynamics of the existing
Furthermore, modelling land tenure systems incorrectly
in productivity and investment studies for example may
yield incorrect conclusions owing to the statistical bias
and inconsistency that comes with poor variable defini-
012 Afr. J. Agric. Res.
pite population pressure and other patriarchal influences,
these systems are still setting the rules for land transfer
to as much as 80 per cent of the time pointing to the resi-
lience inbuilt in the system.
The study also finds that on average there was a high
likelihood that female headed households would feel land
tenure secure than male headed ones in the matrilineal
societies casting doubt as to whether the claim that wo-
men may feel more discriminated against and may feel
more insecure under the existing customary land tenure
regimes is the universal truth. However, it could be
argued that land titling could undermine women’s grip of
land in Malawi.
This study also finds that land tenure insecurity was not
much of a problem to many households and if there was
insecurity at all, then it was men who were likely to feel
tenure insecure especially in the matrilineal systems.
The fact that more land came from wife’s mother
implies that marriage was still an important means of
gaining access to land.
Land titling did not boost land tenure security in Lilon-
gwe district and land is still transferred through the
traditional rules as shown herein.
More importantly, the indigenous categories coined
herein (absolutely indigenous, indigenous, weakly indige-
nous and non indigenous) have proved to statistically
explain land tenure security well. This is an important
finding because it clearly informs policy makers about
which households are more likely to feel land insecurity.
This is helpful for any attempts to tackle land tenure inse-
curity. Furthermore the significance of this categorization
in the land tenure security model simplifies the task of
modelling the effect of the customary land holding in
productivity or any farming studies where it is thought that
the customary land holding system may be important.
Previously, many studies have simply used title or no title
dummy variables which, in practice are not more trans-
parent because for one thing, there is an assumption that
all farmers with land titles enjoy the same levels of
security when in fact as they may not.
? The World Bank sponsored land reform program being
implemented in Malawi needs to be aware of the potential
resilience that that exist in the traditional land access sys-
tems. Traditional land access systems are resilient and
have many inherent merits and the titling programs
should ensure that they do not lead to loss of such
? Land reforms in matrilineal systems should not take
away or dilute women’s rights to land. Women would pro-
bably be worse off if land reforms favoured an end to
matrilineal land transfer as men would easily take advan-
tage of this and possess more land and rights. This is
because women generally do not have the resources that
may be required to obtain and maintain a title over time.
Due to their poor economic positions, some women may
sell their titles to rich and powerful groups to survive and
this may leave a number of women worse off over time.
This phenomenon may be much more under the titling
regimes than it is under the traditional land ownership be-
cause the latter has inbuilt checks against destitute land
? The new land policy seeks to have village level land
registered and titled. The implications could be far-
reaching for the following reasons:
o At present there is not much land tenure insecurity in
the villages. It is therefore doubtful as to whether many
people would see the urgency of land titling/reforms and
this would make land titling hard.
o Land titling and any reforms need careful thought be-
cause in most parts of the country it would imply com-
pletely changing the strengths of long standing traditions
of land access. As already argued, men would become
land owners hence essentially stripping women of their
rights to land. Whether uxorilocal men would hold on to
their land titles after the death of their wives or after
divorce is not an easy question.
? If rural development projects are to be helpful they
should also aim at empowering women so that even in
cases where men feel insecure women should continue
to optimally use their land.
The author is grateful to the Overseas Research Scho-
larships and Leeds University for funding this study. The
author is also grateful to Professor Virginie Perotin for her
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