Can land tenure security be the path to sustainable global commodity supply chains?

Digital innovation and technologies, such as blockchain, can improve the sustainability of global supply chains. To successfully include smallholders in this, one of the key actions is to work on land tenure security.

Through provision of land documentation, smallholder farmers can take a long-term perspective to invest in their land. In global supply chains, land documents are a pre-condition to improve traceability at farmer level.

Land tenure insecurity

In Malawi, where tea is the third most valuable export commodity in the country, land tenure insecurity is affecting long term investments by smallholder farmers. As part of IDH’s smallholder digital innovation and living income agenda, IDH together with Meridia, a global land tenure documentation specialist, financed and facilitated a land documentation feasibility study for Malawi’s tea sector.

With the rise of population density in Malawi’s tea sector, pressure on land has increased. Smallholders cannot expand as they are surrounded by public forest and private tea estate land, which resulted in disputes around customary lands. For this reason, Malawi’s tea smallholders and estates have become more insecure of their land tenure over the past decades, and have reduced their investments in their land, resulting in land degradation and consequently decreasing land productivity.

Implementing land registration

In response, we have seen the Malawian government implementing land reforms, increasing customary land’s registration and recognition, all to improve smallholder security. But financial and technical capacity is needed to deliver it to the tea producing areas. For this reason, Sukambizi Association Trust (SAT), Malawi’s largest tea smallholder cooperative, requested a feasibility project on implementing land registration. The feasibility study is showing that it is possible to deliver cost-effective large-scale registration to the tea sector.

Land registration can improve land tenure security for tea smallholders and their communities while not directly resolving land tenure tensions relating to population pressure. With land registration, the legitimate tenure right holder is recognized, respected, and safeguarded against internal disputes and uncompensated external expropriation. This relieves the landholder farmer from land tenure related risks and enables a longer-term vision on investing in sustainable and productive land use, allows farmers to collateralize their land to get better access to financial services and secure forward contracts from traders, ultimately contributing to better incomes.


Besides contributing for sense of security, clear and well-done land registration creates a strong fundament for traceability systems. In many cases, collected farm-level data becomes more durable and reliable. Usually, the produce/product is traceable to the land it is produced to, giving geographical identification for quality claims and to the farm to make social claims such as living income/fair price, contributing to a more sustainable supply chain.

For example, with the outcomes of implementing land registration, smallholders from different commodities could share issues related to land management with key stakeholders, contributing to better money distribution and socio-economic conditions within supply chains.

When land registration is completed for the estates and smallholders they purchase from, they become more productive and this benefits tea brands. Smallholder tea farmers with registered land have a better chance for a living income and run less risk of losing their land over the coming decades, furthermore tea buyers secure their long-term procurement as the area is likelier to stay stable and smallholders become more productive.

Feasibility project learnings

We have learned from the feasibility project that for a successful land registration project, it requires strong partnerships between public, private and CSO parties, a long-term perspective, and the necessary financing to deliver sustainable effective results. Jointly, land can be registered, tenure security improved, and productivity and stability unlocked. With our funding and advice, Meridia successfully overcame obstacles for delivering land tenure registration to the SAT and paved the way to make an informed decision on engaging and investing in land registration. Likewise, other sectors can benefit from this same model. For instance, in the cocoa sector, digital ID (national IDs) for farmers helped capturing the land ownerships to access formal financial services.

Read the feasibility study summary here