On solid ground: armed with land titles, Tanzania's slum dwellers tackle poverty

DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Maria Mkwawa, the Tanzanian government’s decision to issue her with a formal land title to her home in January was a pleasant surprise.

“It will help me in many ways,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“My family has a bright future.”

Mkwawa is one of hundreds in the impoverished Magomeni ward of the East African nation’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, who recently received what are known as residential licenses.

The documents, which are equivalent to land title, form part of a nationwide program that began in June 2018 to secure property rights for home owners in informal settlements. It is currently focused on Dar es Salaam.

As one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities, and home to about five million people, Dar es Salaam is rapidly urbanizing.

About 70 percent of its residents live in informal settlements without clean water and decent sanitation, according to UN-Habitat, the U.N. agency for urban development.

Until recently, the government regularly demolished homes in informal settlements. In October 2017, housing minister William Lukuvi announced a nationwide program to knock down such dwellings.

But, in January, Lukuvi said that had changed: a new policy of providing land tenure would help the urban poor.

“We will no longer demolish informal and unplanned settlements. The government will instead recognize and license property owners in those areas,” Lukuvi was quoted as saying in local media.

He said the policy shift was a directive from President John Magufuli, who held that it was not the fault of poor people that they built homes in such areas.

“A property without a land title is worthless. Once these properties are formalized, rightful owners can use them as loan security,” said Lukuvi.


The program follows on the heels of a 2016 effort to seize agricultural land left undeveloped by investors and return it to poor farmers, in a bid to quell conflicts between farmers, herders and developers.

Although critics have accused the government of acting simply to garner votes from the poor ahead of next year’s general election, Nathaniel Mathew, a deputy land commissioner, said that was not the case.

“Policies and plans to upgrade unplanned settlements have nothing to do with the elections,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In January, Lukuvi told reporters that the program would help more than two million residents of Dar es Salaam, with the ultimate goal to provide title to all residents of informal settlements nationwide.

For Mkwawa, holding the residential license provided proof that she was the rightful owner of the property. It also meant that nobody could demolish her home with impunity.

“I have a lot of confidence now,” she said.

That was not the case two years ago, when Mkwawa’s home, built in an area that was not zoned for housing near the Jangwani wetland near the city center, was demolished.

Back then, the city authorities repeatedly knocked down homes built in areas deemed prohibited - including areas that lacked planning permission or that were constructed in reserves or on tracts of land allocated for infrastructure.

The 45-year old mother of four had spent scorching days and cold nights huddled with her family by the rubble.

Having land title gave Mkwawa, who cooks and sells fried fish from a street stall, the chance to seek a loan of 1 million shillings ($450) to grow her business from AccessBank, which describes itself as a socially responsible bank.


As cities rapidly urbanize, governments face many challenges in improving the quality of life for slum dwellers, who are increasingly vulnerable to health and environmental hazards, said Lusuga Kironde, professor of urban development at Ardhi University in Dar es Salaam.

The program hinges on the fact that most properties are unregistered and the owners lack proof of ownership. Getting that document should help residents of informal settlements to access credit, said Kironde.

And, he added, legitimizing ownership could help the urban poor in other ways.

“If you don’t have title to prove ownership of a house, you usually have no legal recourse if that home is taken away from you,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Property titles provide security for loans and a proof of existence of wealth which, along with a formal address, serves to strengthen business trust and social capital, Kironde said.

The land title policy falls within a broader program called MKURABITA, which aims to transform property and businesses held in the informal sector into legal entities that are rooted firmly in the formal sector.

The government has urged financial institutions to accept the documents since they bear the same legal status as title deeds.

Yet although residential titles do offer legal protection, said Yefred Mnyenzi, a land rights researcher, they had largely failed to lift people out of poverty, in part because some banks would not accept them as security.

It is also the case that some residents are wary of using their property as security in the event they defaulted.

“If I use my house to borrow the money, where will my family live once it’s sold for failure to repay the loan?” asked Mawazo Kwiyera, a resident of Magomeni ward in Dar es Salaam.


Some residents, however, have leaped at the chance. Sabina Luhago - a widow with three children - wanted to expand her small shop, but was unable to do so until the government issued residential licenses to people in Tandale, the largest unplanned neighborhood in Dar es Salaam.

Initially, she said, she did not know that her residential document was sufficient to secure a bank loan.

Sijaona Simon, marketing manager at AccessBank, said that in considering the particular needs of the poor, the bank accepted government-issued collateral documents.

It had also made getting a loan easier.

“If everything is in order, we disburse the money within a week,” he said.

Luhago said she was able to borrow 1.5 million shillings. The process saw AccessBank officials inspect her business, check her residential license, and then take a photograph of her standing in front of the shop.

Processing the loan took just a week.

“I feel very much secure now. My children’s future is bright,” she said.

Reporting by Kizito Makoye, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit