Land is a precious commodity, and land ownership holds significant value in all parts of the world. In Ghana, land is not only viewed as a monetary asset. Land holds more personal value and Ghanaians view it as part of their heritage and culture. They feel that their land is a piece of them, something they will pass down from generation to generation. With this strong attachment to land, land rights are a very sensitive and pertinent issue. But in Ghana, owning land and having proof of land ownership do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is where Thomas and his company Landmapp offer a unique service: mapping land and providing official land tenure documentation to smallholder farmers.
The background and launch of Landmapp
Thomas Vaassen has always worked in the startup space. He founded the Amsterdam branch of Impact Hub and served as the chairman of the Global Hub for a few years. In these roles, he had the opportunity to work with numerous entrepreneurs. Through these experiences, and over many years, he developed a strong perspective on the global economy. He came to believe that property rights are one of the most crucial inhibitors to economic growth and improved livelihoods for the poor.
Most of the rural poor are unbanked, meaning that they do not have a bank or savings account. This prevents them from entering the formal economy, and without being able to accumulate wealth or prove what is rightfully theirs, they cannot protect what they own. “When I started thinking about it,” Thomas said, “I thought, if that was the case for me, what would I do? I wouldn’t necessarily develop and build something. I would try to live day by day because I might build a house and then my land might be taken from me. In order for people to start thinking more long term, and make investments, then they need property rights.”
In 2014, when Thomas was seeking a way to address this issue, he re-connected with Simon Ulvund, a fellow Impact Hub member who shared a similar vision. Simon wanted to increase access to finance for the rural poor. Together, Thomas and Simon created Landmapp to provide land rights and ultimately unlock the potential of land for financial growth.
Defining the target market and refining the product
So, who comprises the majority of the rural poor? Farmers. According to the FAO, there are close to 500 million smallholder farmers globally. What’s more, around three quarters of the world’s low-income population depends on land and agriculture-related activities for their food and income.
Landmapp therefore targets smallholder farmers as their customers. Before launching, they conducted a feasibility study assessing 20 indicators to see which markets (i.e. countries) would be ready for their product. They looked at factors such as whether any land reform had been pushed through government and if there was local NGO activity trying to promote land rights. The results brought them to Ghana and Indonesia, and Ghana was the first country where Landmapp established operations in 2015.
Thomas and Simon’s initial idea for Landmapp was to create an app for people to map their own land. Individuals would update their accounts, add documents, get validation from neighbors, etc. to document their property. It would be a form of crowdsourced property validation that wouldn’t require government facilitation.
However, after further research, they realized this would not work. In most places, and certainly in Ghana, people are looking for the official stamp of approval. No one will take property documentation seriously without a signed land tenure document from a government official or the village chief.
Literacy and technological literacy pose additional challenges. Rural farmers often can’t read and usually only have simple mobile phones, so a smartphone app wouldn’t solve their problems. Therefore, Thomas and Simon took a different route for Landmapp. They spent the last year establishing Landmapp in the community. They built a qualified team of people to collect land ownership data and obtain the official government documentation for the farmers.
Landmapp works in partnership with the Ghana Lands Commission as well as many divisional chiefs. It is also registered with the Ghana Data Authority. Their Ghana-based team is made up of experienced land surveyors, lawyers, and some tech developers. Aside from Thomas, Simon, and two lead developers, the entire Landmapp team is Ghanaian.
A business based on mutual trust that will allow for expansion
Farmers in Ghana are anxious to gain the documents that protect their land. Prior to Landmapp, the process to do so was expensive and often exploitative. Even though Landmapp offers a low cost option, farmers need to know that they are spending their hard earned money on something worthwhile and legitimate. “What we are building is trust, in the sense that a farmer hasn’t shared this information with any person or any organization ever. It’s quite an exceptional event in the life of a farmer to give 2-3 months of their salary to a company.”
Landmapp currently offers three different products, FarmSeal, HomeSeal, and CropSeal, all targeting different needs. To date, Landmapp has provided these services to over 2000 farmers. Landmapp runs primarily on a Business-to-Consumer (B2C) model, with some additional income generated through Business-to-Business (B2B) projects. Being a B2C business means that smallholder farmers directly pay Landmapp for their services. That model makes Landmapp more accountable to these farmers. The Landmapp team makes in-person visits, surveys the farms, and conducts interviews about the farmers’ families and livelihoods. In other words, they build a rapport with their customers.
With this trust in place, Thomas and Simon know that they can continue to work with farmers and offer them more services. These may include insurance, credit and savings, legal services, access to farm inputs, and more. After all, the objective of Landmapp is to unlock the value of land. That goes beyond just providing land tenure documents. Thomas said that they “want to give the farmer a sense of security and show them that the investment in their land can create a cycle of positive returns.”
Words for the World
Thomas believes that a key factor for any economy to actually work and generate wealth is property rights. At the same time, he thinks the general population often overlooks this issue.
“If you see that for most of the bottom billion, the key asset is land, then land becomes the most exciting thing to work on. It’s the root cause, and many things depend on it. It’s very foundational, and ¾ of the planet’s land isn’t properly documented or protected. Without a properly functioning land rights system, you won’t have an economy that can really flourish. You can do many other projects, farming, education, etc. but individuals won’t have an incentive to implement these things because they will be living day by day. It doesn’t make sense for them to invest in their own long-term growth. People need to be motivated to have a long-term vision, and then invest and then develop.”