Land is a primary asset for survival and development in Eastern Africa. Land supports the livelihoods of most rural people. Rural population is high: in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea and Uganda more than 80 per cent of the people live in rural areas; in Kenya and Somalia more than 60 per cent live in rural areas; and, in contrast, in Djibouti only 16.3 per cent live in rural areas (FAO 2005). Land also provides diverse functions in support of ecosystem processes.

As shown in Table 6 below, Uganda has the highest proportion of potentially arable land, whereas in Rwanda, all arable land is in use (FAO/AGL 2003) and land pressure is pushing cultivation into marginal areas. In Eritrea, 88 per cent is under cultivation. Countries such as Rwanda and Burundi face enormous challenges as they are physically small with high population densities. Burundi’s population density is 265.8 per km² and Rwanda’s 340.1 per km² (FAO 2005). Burundi has the highest rate of deforestation in Africa, and one of the highest globally, with a 9 per cent change per year (FAO 2005). Potential arable land is negligible in Djibouti because of the extremely arid conditions in the country.

Table 6: Actual and potential arable land in countries of Eastern Africa
  Total area Potential arable land Actual arable land in 1994
'000 km2 '000 ha % of total area '000 ha % of potential
Burundi 26 1 414 54.4 1 180 83.5
Djibouti 23 0 0 0 0.0
Ethiopia 1 101 42 945 39 11 012 25.6
Eritrea 94 590 6.3 519 88.0
Kenya 569 15 845 27.8 4 520 28.5
Rwanda 25 746 29.8 1 170 156.8
Somalia 627 2 381 3.8 1 020 42.8
Uganda 200 14 169 70.8 6 800 48.0
Total 2 665 78 090 29.3 26 221 33.6

Source: Compiled from FAO/AGL 2003

Figure 4: Land use and land cover for Eastern African countries (1994) More than one-third of the land area is covered by permanent pasture as the dominant land use is livestock grazing as shown in Figure 4 (FAOSTAT 2004). About 73 per cent of the total area is characterized by desert and dryland conditions, of which significant proportions fall in Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia.

Though immense, the potential of irrigation is under- utilized. The current extent of irrigated land is largest in Somalia. followed by Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi. In the Horn of Africa, less than 1 per cent of the cultivable area is irrigated (IATFUN 2000). In Ethiopia, about 214 720 ha is irrigated, while the potentially irrigable land is estimated to be 3 328 910 ha (MoWRD 2001), implying that only 6.5 per cent of the potentially irrigable land is currently under irrigation. The area currently under irrigation accounts for about 3 per cent of the country’s total food production (FDRE 2003). In Kenya, potentially irrigable land is estimated to be 540 000 ha, of which 52 000 ha or 9.6 per cent of the potential has been developed.


Agriculture and tourism are the main drivers of growth in Eastern Africa. Improved agriculture was a key factor in Tanzania’s growth of 6.1 per cent and Ethiopia’s growth of 11.6 per cent per year (ECA 2005).

Land is primarily utilized for agriculture (crop and livestock production), nature-based tourism and extraction of other land-based natural resources such as metal ores and oils. By putting in place appropriate institutional and policy frameworks, and conservation- based agricultural development technologies, the breadth of opportunities to be derived from land can be immense and thus hold great potential for breaking the circle of poverty. Though variable between countries, agriculture accounts for the highest share of GDP, contributing 51.5 per cent in Burundi, 49.9 per cent in Ethiopia, 43.1 per cent in Uganda and 38.9 per cent in Rwanda. For Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya, the GDP is derived from diverse service sectors.

Integrated land-use planning is an essential tool and defines an approach to land resources management. It introduces mechanisms and incentives for bringing about change in land allocation as well as for identifying suitable biophysical and economic uses, and it prescribes appropriate management practices and options to ensure that land resources are conserved (FAO/UNEP 1999). In Ethiopia, attempts have been made to formulate and implement integrated land-use plans at village, district, regional and national levels. The national land-use plan was based on a nationwide socioeconomic and physical land resources database (Henricksen 1988). There are attempts to implement local or village level integrated land-use planning using watershed or farmer’s service cooperative boundaries as planning units (Gittins and Henricksen 1986, LUPRD 1989, MoARD 2005). In Kenya, the watershed management approach has been used extensively to conserve and develop resources at a microlevel.

There are opportunities from agricultural research and technologies which can contribute to development, such as the use of improved seed varieties, agrochemicals and other improved agronomic practices (appropriate planting date, seeding rate, etc). This could result in substantive yield increases, as current production is often characterized by low input and management levels.

The sustainable use of land resources requires, among other things, a strong institutional framework at all levels. The mushrooming of multiple sub-regional institutions to manage resources, which are of an inter- country nature, is a key element in fostering economic growth. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was put in place in 1986 with seven member counties including Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, with the aim of strengthening regional cooperation and efforts in areas of food security and environmental protection, maintenance of peace and security and humanitarian affairs, and enhancing economic cooperation and integration of member countries.

Recurrent drought, limited alternative sources of income, population pressure, limited technology, lack of product diversification and market integration, lack of institutional capacity, environmental degradation and poor access to credit all undermine efficient and sustainable land use. In some countries, including Ethiopia, many interlocking and reinforcing factors including poverty, misguided policies, technological stagnation, population pressure, insecurity of land rights, weak institutional support (credit, extension, etc), drought and political instability contributed to the stagnation of agriculture, food insecurity and the degradation of natural resources (Shiferaw 1994, FDRE 2003). These factors may make efficient planning and management difficult: in Ethiopia, for example, the effectiveness of the recently launched nationwide agricultural extension programme, which embraces about 40 per cent of the farming population, has been constrained by high agricultural input prices, shortage of complementary inputs and inadequate extension services (Bonger and others 2004). Access to improved technology in Ethiopia is minimal where the average rate of fertilizer (nutrient) application per hectare of cultivated land is 17.5 kg (CSA 1996). In Uganda, increased crop and livestock disease, soil degradation, lack of access to improved agricultural inputs, weak agricultural extension systems, inefficient markets, increasing land fragmentation and unreliable weather have been cited as contributing to the declining crop yield of smallholder farmers (McDonagh and Bahiigwa 2002). On the high and medium potential lands of Kenya, land productivity potential is adversely affected by soil erosion, decline in soil fertility, soil salinization, crop and livestock diseases and fragmentation of landholdings. In the lowlands, where pastoralism is the predominant farming system, a combination of physical, environmental and socioeconomic factors constrain production efficiency. Gradual resource shrinkage, tenure insecurity and inadequate livestock watering may also be major problems in pastoral areas, as they are in Ethiopia (Arsano 1999, Sisay 1999).

Land degradation is a serious problem as shown in Table 7. The total area suffering from severe to very severe degradation is about 14 per cent (FAOSTAT 2005). In particular, Burundi and Rwanda face a serious threat of land degradation, where about 76 and 71 per cent of the respective country’s total area encounters very severe degradation problems (FAOSTAT 2005). They are followed by Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, where areas with severe to very severe degradation constitute about 63, 53, 30 and 26 per cent respectively of total land area (FAOSTAT 2005). In Djibouti, wind erosion is the principal form of erosion but is mainly viewed as “natural” due to the absence of agricultural land (FAO/AGL 2003).

Table 7: Land degradation in Eastern Africa
  Total area Severe Very severe
'000 km2 area (%) '000 km2 area (%) '000 km2
Burundi 26 0 0 76 0
Djibouti 23 0 0 0 0
Eritrea 94 55 51.7 8 4.136
Ethiopia 1 101 8 88.08 20 17.616
Kenya 569 19 108.11 11 11.8921
Rwanda 25 0 0 71 0
Somalia 627 0 0 15 0
Uganda 200 41 82 12 9.84
Total 329.89 43.4841 2 665   2 665   2 665
Total (severe - v. severe)* 373.3741 14.01      
* aggregated data

Source: FAOSTAT 2005

The pressures and driving forces that are attributable to land degradation are similar across the countries of the sub-region. Typical proximate causes include overcultivation, overgrazing and deforestation. The process of soil degradation is affected by poverty, population dynamics, insecure tenure, weak institutional support (eg extension, credit, etc), political instability and factors related to physical land attributes such as topography, soil and rainfall conditions. Topography is an important consideration, as many countries are mountainous. In order of magnitude, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia encounter the highest potential erosion risk due to steep topography.

The areas with the most severe land degradation are also those with the highest population density. The high population density, in the central and northern highlands of Eritrea, Rwanda and Burundi, is an important consideration. Rwanda has the highest population in Africa, with 340 people per km²; its population is growing at 2.1 per cent per year (FAO 2005). Burundi, with a population density of 265.8, is growing at 3.1 per cent per year (FAO 2005).

Land tenure is profoundly political, and it continues to be a critical factor in the development of African politics and economies (Bruce and others 1996). Land tenure, and in particular ownership and access rights, has been widely recognized to have important bearings on effective, efficient and sustainable management and production regimes. The topography of land tenure varies from country to country and includes freehold tenure, state leasehold and community-based tenure (legally recognized indigenous tenure and community-based). A combination of freehold, state leasehold and community-based tenure prevail in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda (Bruce and others 1996). In Burundi and Djibouti, freehold and community-based tenure, including pastoral systems, occur extensively (Bruce and others 1996). In Ethiopia and Eritrea, state leasehold and community-based tenure, including pastoral regimes, dominate. Overall, the tenure situation assessment in most of the sub-region’s countries (Uganda, Somalia, Kenya and Rwanda) reveals that compulsory and systematic tenure conversion to individual ownership offered little benefit to smallholder farmers (Bruce and others 1996). In Ethiopia, tenure insecurity is described as being one of the major problems associated with the existing land system (Rahmato 2004, EEA/EEPRI 2002). In Kenya, where formal titles to land are held by many farmers, the lack of any significant relationship between land title and crop yield is perhaps explained by the limited use of land titles in obtaining formal credits (Migot-Adholla and others 1994).