The presidential title deed programme

Since then, the President has appointed a Cabinet committee to oversee the programme consisting of Finance, Housing, Local Government and Justice ministers.

IN late 2022, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that he was going to grant all those who were building houses on State land, freehold title. The statement gained little attention at the time, but it certainly caught mine.

Zimbabwe is an amazing place and full of surprises. Not least of these is the housing boom which has characterised the country in the past decade. When you visit Nairobi the building boom is very evident — construction cranes litter the horizon. Not in Zimbabwe; in fact, I have only seen building cranes on two sites in the past decade — one on the new regional headquarters of Afrexim Bank in Harare and on an industrial site in Bulawayo.

But we consume millions of tonnes of cement, bricks and stone and everywhere you look there are buildings going up, mainly family housing. I estimate that over 1,5 million houses are either built or are under construction in our urban areas, and most of this development is on State-owned land. The decision to give these families title has massive implications.

Since then, the President has appointed a Cabinet committee to oversee the programme consisting of Finance, Housing, Local Government and Justice ministers. They in turn have established a working committee of all the agencies involved and invited the private sector to help with the process. This element is represented by the Kwangu/Ngakwami Presidential Title Deed Trust. This group has been working on this project for the past 20 months and a start has been made in the Epworth Local Board where 50 000 houses are to receive title.

Since that time, the programme has been expanded to include the digitalisation of all 3,2 million existing title deeds, granting all informal housing title, converting urban municipal-owned housing to freehold and granting all rural business centres title deeds. At least six million stands of land in urban, peri-urban and rural areas will receive title in both paper and digital form.

The combined value of these properties will run into several hundreds of millions of dollars, nearly all of it unencumbered and free of debt. This single exercise will do more to transform our economy than debt relief, or aid, or even investment.

Besides the impact on our economy, the impact on millions of families is going to be dramatic. Owning a home is the main objective of a family everywhere in the world. It will, in the majority of cases, be the largest investment owned by the families involved. Much of this development is being funded by the diaspora population which sends money home for building.

The government has been enabling this process by allocating land for house construction, now it is extending this to title deeds and ownership. Rwanda has done the same thing and has issued 3,2 million title deeds over land since Paul Kagame came to power. The impact of this programme on that small country does not need to be described.

Rwanda is helping us with our programme and has a technical team working in Harare with its technologies and electronic infrastructure. The University of Zimbabwe has established the technical capacity to provide us with plans of all urban centres down to an accuracy of one centimetre, allowing us to provide accurate survey data at a very low cost, using drone and satellite technology.

One immediate result of this is that you do not see squatter camps and shacks here. Our people build decent houses. This shows what you do when you give people a start in life with a resource, land, which you control.

There is no country in Africa that would not want to emulate what we are doing. I saw this once in India where an agency I was associated with bought land and allocated 50 square metres of land to each family and a US$500 loan.

In three years, a whole community had been established with three-storey homes. It gave dignity and worth to the poorest of the poor and 98% of the building loans were repaid and recycled into the community. I spoke to a teenager in one home who described how their family had lived under tin and plastic for over 20 years and then this happened to them. She was in school and wanted to be a doctor.

Our urban communities are all suffering from an inadequate tax base and poor infrastructure. When you have towns and cities growing, as they do here, by 5 to 8% per annum, meeting basic needs is a huge financial burden.

By creating property value, we are creating the capacity to meet these needs through the local authorities. The rates revenues will run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Our capacity to raise capital on a long-term basis for financing infrastructure is all going to be possible.

The trust is picking this up with a consortium of banks and financial institutions to administer and finance the process. Contractors in all centres are being identified to undertake the work involved.

Thousands of jobs will be created. Granting title and then providing all the basic services needed will create vibrant urban settlements with a better quality of life. Creating a middle income society as the President has stipulated as his Vision 2030, will strengthen our democracy and demand better local authority governance.

In this process we are creating a new, modern Deeds Office which will service our private sector and the national property sector properly. Every property owner will be able to access his records electronically. Local authorities will have an electronic register of properties and values in their administrative areas. Property transfers will be low cost and easy to give effect, helping to create a vibrant market for property which will support lending and our whole financial industry.

An aspect which is receiving attention is how to give value to farm land in rural areas. This will probably be in the form of a 99-year lease which will be registered just like a title deed and be negotiable for banking purposes. Long-term leases on this basis will give rural land owners real incentives to invest and the collateral to do so as well as to finance their annual needs.

If we can achieve this together with the urban programme, this will do more to transform Zimbabwe and raise living standards better than anything else. It will form a legacy for the President which will yield dividends long after his retirement.

Eddie Cross is an economist and former Bulawayo South legislator. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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