Customary vs Private Property Rights? Dynamics and Trajectories of Vernacular Land Markets in Sub-Saharan Africa


  • Admos Chimhowu and Phil Woodhouse, both Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, Harold Hankins Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9QH. e-mails:;

  • This is a substantially revised version of a paper published in Forum for Development Studies 32 (2), 2005. We are grateful to Henry Bernstein for his extensive comments on that earlier paper.


Contemporary discourse on land in Africa is polarized between advocates of tenure reform through state registration of individual titles to land and others who claim that customary or ‘communal’ tenure is the only check against landlessness among the poor in the African countryside, and that ‘pro-poor’ land policy should therefore strengthen customary rights to land. This paper draws on a growing body of evidence on the emergence of vernacular rural land sales and rental markets to question assumptions that underlie the non-market ‘ideal type’ communal tenure model that has historically dominated policy thinking in Africa, and continues to be shared by both sides of the current land tenure reform debate. The paper argues that recognition of the specific characteristics of ‘vernacular land markets’– commoditized transfers of land within the framework of customary tenure – is essential if state land policies are to succeed in promoting the interests of the poor.