Blockchain technology has been bundled around as a possible panacea to Kenya’s land registry problem. Land registries in Kenya are infamous for all manner of things.
Lost, defaced, destroyed, duplicated or even altered records are some of the ills regularly cited.
Service seekers in these registries also complain of long delays, preferential treatment and rent seeking.
Besides attitude, fraud and self-serving irregularities, most of these complaints are closely tied to poor storage, access and updating of land records.
So, can the new buzz technology, blockchain, redeem us or is it mere hype?
The use of blockchain technology has been gaining traction around the world.
Debate and pilots on the use of this technology has intensified lately.
During the 19th Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty held in Washington earlier this year, discussions on blockchain took up two whole sessions with a record eight presentations made on the second day.
It was part of discussions during the pre-conference workshop too.
This doesn’t easily happen in this premier global forum unless a subject is considered important.
That blockchain has earned its place in the forum in such a big way perhaps bespeaks its potential to influence land administration around the world in future.
Papers presented on blockchain focused on the concept itself, the technology, ongoing country-level pilots and the possibilities of applying the technology to land administration.
Blockchain technology basically harnesses cryptography, which is basically secret writing, to encode digital data.
Once encoded, no changes or tampering can be done to the data by one or a group of participants in a network without detection.
Blockchain can be viewed as the use of distributed or decentralised ledgers or databases with encrypted data, which is shared and securely kept.
The technology enhances trust in service delivery. This is why blockchain works well for cryptocurrency where a digital asset is designed to work as a medium of exchange in a secure digital environment.
The immutability and sharing of encoded data are features that could be harnessed for land registries.
It must however be noted if the original data is inaccurate, then the encoded or immutable record will also be inaccurate.
The technology does not therefore sanitise or sort out unreliable data, but rather helps to protect the encoded data from any unauthorised changes.
Use of blockchain hence presupposes data accuracy, and its availability in digital form.
As mentioned above, land records held in our registries in some cases ‘mutate’ or change at the whim or influence of a particular officer or external interested persons, making them not as reliable as they ought to be.
The possibility of unauthorised change of land records undermines confidence in property ownership and registration.
So do we adopt blockchain? We noted above that its use calls for accurate data.
This essentially means for our land registries to harness the technology, we need to have accurate land records.
But are they? Some of our land records have not been updated. We, for instance, have those that were irregularly derived from public land.
We have records which contain deliberate or inadvertent human entry errors or are duplicated.
All such records, and any others considered not authenticate, ought to be sorted out and kept aside before encrypting for use in blockchain.
Use of blockchain also requires a digital environment. This therefore requires that our land records be in digital form.
While initial steps have been made towards the digitisation of land records, most of Kenya’s registries still operate manual records.
It will take quite a while to digitise them. The use of blockchain would therefore find limitations for lack of comprehensive digital data.
It should be noted that countries such as Sweden, Georgia and Dubai, which provide lead lessons, had fully digital registry systems before incorporating blockchain.
So, in toying around with thoughts on the use of blockchain in our local circumstances, we need to appreciate these limitations.
We must first sort out our existing manual records to ensure we can identify the accurate and current ones.
We will then have to intensify efforts in digitising the cadastral maps maintained by Survey of Kenya. These maps support our land register.
We must also escalate the ongoing initiative to digitise ownership records, and also provide mechanisms for updating the maps and ownership databases whenever there are changes in parcel sizes, shapes and ownership.
Once we obtain the required threshold, we can then interrogate the possibility of harnessing some of the positive features of blockchain.
This includes the immutability offered by encrypted data, making it quite difficult for hackers to access, change or destroy land records as they would the traditional databases.
Ultimately, the success of such an initiative will hang around the availability of sufficient technical capacity and institutional integrity.
We must have enough officers trained in the technical and policy management of digital data.
We must also inculcate a proprietary institutional culture so that all officers in Survey of Kenya and the land registries begin to view and treat land records as important and sacrosanct.
Mwathane is a land surveyor [email protected]