Bitland is a startup that aims to bring credible land title registry by the use of blockchain. It hopes to therefore alleviate issues of fraud and forged land titles. This is a one of a kind implementation of the technology in Africa and Bitland is currently working with the Ghanaian government.
Narigamba Mwinsuubo started the technology initiative in 2014 and was joined with Chris Bates as Chief Security Officer in 2015. According to Bates the launch of the company was inspired by economist Hernando De Soto’s belief that society can only accumulate wealth if it has protection over its land.
Land issues across Africa cannot be underestimated. They have been the biggest source of fights and court cases due to unreliable data on who owns land. These issues trace back to the end of colonialism where the scramble for ancestral land became intense.
In Kenya, efforts to have the land registry digitised are ongoing after years of land fraud, duplicate land ownership certificates and even in extreme cases land clashes.
Bates, who is based in Indiana, US, states that the situation is the same in Ghana and rest of the continent. “In Ghana there is a major issue with land title registry. It’s one of the worst in the sense of there are areas where the government has no real registry. The chiefs are in control of most of the land.”
He explains that the local chiefs have knowledge on who owns which piece of land but that doesn’t serve as good protection since they could be influenced to change their mind.
“We thought that if there could be a blockchain based registry it would help develop the country and increase the wealth in regions that have chiefs controlling most of the land or there is no real protection of the titles from the government,” he tells IDG Connect.
Bates believes that blockchain could be the perfect solution to such problems.
“Blockchain takes one fact and uses a protocol of computer consensus to confirm that the fact exists. Whatever that fact is, whether transfer of money or property, all that blockchain is doing is confirming that that fact exists,” he explains.
Blockchain is more than just having a database since conventional databases can be changed fraudulently and are prone to untracked mistakes.
Bates adds that, “While there is one point of entry of every data, the data is being confirmed by the entire network because the network is spreading around the responsibility, that means whatever they agree upon is a fact.”
Even though it is a noble idea, the introduction of the system to government bodies is a painstaking business.
“We started to try and get more government cooperation and involvement in the process. You can’t have these types of solutions working unless governments accept them and they are part of the process,” Bates says.
“They [government] weren’t really perceptive at first but a lot of that was because the rhetoric surrounding it was anti-government. In the early days of blockchain you heard people say that blockchain was going to replace government and its functioning processes. And now that we know that is not true we can now start to look at real applications where the technology can be used,” Bates says.
Now that there is more practical use of the technology the government seems to be more receptive, according to Bates.
The development of the country’s infrastructure is the foundation of having robust systems that are reliable and include everyone in the country.
“Our protocol is more than just on a digital registry. It’s educating people on the importance on the technology and the benefits of having a working registry. Implementing physical structures that can support these digital registries,” Bates adds.
“You can’t have a digital registry where there is no internet. And you can’t have internet where there is no electricity. We have to address physical infrastructure issues and education in order to make the technology useful. We are more than just a software protocol.”
The political will for blockchain in Africa
To an extent there needs to be a political will to interrogate and implement blockchain in government processes. In Kenya, the government stand against Bitcoin and cryptocurrency made it harder for BitPesa, a Bitcoin exchange in Kenya to penetrate the market.
The company now has concentrated its efforts in Nigeria where their market is growing larger than in Kenya. This underlines the importance of having government support in adopting new technology that touches on national assets.
“When you have a government that is mostly the previous generation, that has very little experience in blockchain technology or even internet, they are not using it as much as the young people,” Bates says. Even so, a slow approach to implementation could help African governments in employing blockchain.
“The system has to be secure from end to end for the technology to be useful – until we get to that point it’s not really ready for implementation. So the government not rushing to implement it has given time for the technologies to get better. By the time the governments come around, the technology would have gone through so many iterations that it will be ready for prime adoption,” he adds.
But laws in most governments should also encompass new technologies such as blockchain to avoid fraud in data entry, making the system free of faults.
Ultimately blockchain can enable money laundering and fraud if it is not properly monitored. There has to be some access control point to verify that the people in the system are legitimate. That is the only real legislation that can be effectively implemented without stifling the technology.
“I don’t think there can be an all-encompassing law but it will have to start with examples [like] anti-laundering laws and know your customers standards that have been set by banks,” Bates says.
Bates says that Bitland’s cooperation with government bodies is still ongoing and he hopes that soon they will convince the state to incorporate blockchain solutions for verification of land ownership and in the future for other assets too.
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