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NREN Opportunities and Challenges: the Xnet Development Alliance Trust experience

Wilfred Kuria

Being the last entrant into the UbuntuNet Alliances National Research and Education Network (NREN) arena, I’d like to share some of our experiences to date. As we are still finding our feet, my discussion will feature mainly on opportunities and challenges encountered to date as well as recommendations.

The Xnet Development Alliance Trust was established as a connectivity provider for schools in 2004 and expanded its operations to include all educational institutions in 2007. Through partnerships with telecommunications operators in the country Xnet was able to secure subsidised pricing on behalf of its beneficiaries.

Current beneficiaries include tertiary institutions, libraries, teacher’s resource centres, vocational training centres as well as schools. Beyond connectivity, services such as e-Learning, email provisioning, website hosting, spam filtering etc. are now possible through the Xnet ISP. It therefore made sense, given the educational beneficiaries already connected, for Xnet to seek membership with the UbuntuNet Alliance and become a NREN.

As a NREN, a number of benefits are accorded to beneficiary institutions. For one, as members of the NREN, these institutions would benefit from lower costs of bandwidth. Furthermore, national bandwidth linkages would be established between member institutions, where possible, to encourage co-operation between institutions and more importantly, to conserve international bandwidth. Over time such linkages would also lead to collaborative research projects between educational institutions in the country.


With the advent of cloud computing it may make sense for the more established NRENs to consider hosting services on behalf of start-up NRENS to allow them an opportunity to concentrate on growing capacity. Furthermore, this eliminates the need for the NREN to have to procure equipment immediately, or to hire additional staff from the onset. Moreover, when the NREN has grown enough to a position where it can support additional staff, the transition from the supported NREN to an independent institution would be better planned for and less stressful.

As it is now, it’s like jumping into the deep end and hoping to be able to swim and not sink. One has to consider costs of ISP equipment, cross-border connections to the closest UbuntuNet routers, meetings with potential beneficiaries, staffing needs etc. As a result, CEOs can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of issues requiring attention during the start-up phase and could greatly benefit from such collaborations.

Collaborations need not be restricted to research alone. The day-to-day management of the ISP could become an educational project jointly managed by the research and educational institutions. The lack of qualified technical skills, in Namibia anyway, leaves industry with no other choice but to import these skills from outside the borders – at a premium. And yet, every year tertiary institutions produce graduates in the Information Communication field with little or no hands-on technical experience. This relationship could include administrative and financial services which would earn the students some money but more importantly provide them with hands-on experience.

Outsourcing of key functions should be encouraged as it lowers overheads to the NREN over the long run – especially for small NRENs. Inflated staffing costs can erode potential price benefits to be passed on to beneficiaries. In the infancy stages of a NREN costs have to be kept as low as possible and as beneficiary institutions increase, then too can key operational and administrative positions. The rest should either be outsourced or managed under collaborative agreements with member institutions.


Support, encouragement and development of research in Africa is crucial. Of equal importance is access to this research. Currently a number of African scholars are published in international journals. However, their work is never accessed by the very people the research is meant to impact on.

As NRENs continue to expand their beneficiary institutions, libraries should form a crucial part of these institutions. Libraries as a neutral body, freely accessed by the public, should become the custodians of all the content/research generated through the collaborative research efforts of beneficiary institutions. At the very least, they should serve as references where such research output can be located.

Where library consortia don’t exist, tertiary institutions operate as individual islands catering only for the needs of their students. Consequently, access to information is a challenge for these students as their institutional libraries don’t always have the most recent editions of books or publications. This then leads to scenarios where individual institutions purchase the same books and subscribe to the same journals, replicating efforts and wasting money in the process. Collaboration and sharing of research thus becomes a problem at these institutions and sometimes NRENs find themselves having to mediate between such institutions.

Ministries, with education taking the lead, have to play a greater role in ensuring that their research and education institutions co-operate and not compete with one another. Inter-institutional politics can derail or at the very least hold back progress for a REN. Unfortunately these rivalries exist everywhere. However if the line ministries (in the case of public institutions) were to “encourage” these institutions to collaborate it would make the job of the NREN that much easier. After all, most NREN applications are submitted to the Alliance with the support of the Education ministries, but it sometimes seems as though that is where the relationship begins and ends.

At what point does an NREN overstep its boundaries as an institution? Is it the responsibility of a NREN to spearhead the creation of policies on research? Is it the responsibility of the NREN to spearhead the formation of a library consortium as discussed previously? Should NRENS just concentrate on fostering collaborative research and leave the rest for others to resolve? Is it the responsibility of the NREN to ensure that research content is readily available to the public?

These and other similar questions are pertinent as they impact on the success/failure of the NREN. This then requires the NREN to work closely with government ministries, or at the very least directorates within these ministries, in order to address some of the questions asked above. NRENs need to be seen as partners to government providing much needed, and relevant, research.

On the issue of access, connecting to the closest UbuntuNet Router ensures that NRENS have access to affordable, good quality, bandwidth. However, the costs of connecting to the closest UbuntuNet router sometimes deter progress. In the case of Namibia there are 2 available connection points in South Africa. The options are to either connect to UbuntuNet routers in Cape Town or Johannesburg.

Access to the UbuntuNet network is a problem as the national telecommunications infrastructure is owned by commercial providers. Despite the cost of bandwidth being cheap (once connected to the UbuntuNet network), the cost of carrying the data traffic over a long distance negates these benefits.

Access to the UbuntuNet network gives rise to another problem that plagues start-up NRENS, staffing. A key requirement of becoming a REN is for the REN to acquire an Autonomous System Number (ASN) as well as its own IP range through AfriNic. This means that the REN needs to: a) have/operate its own ISP; and b) there needs to be someone with some level of technical expertise to manage the ISP functions such as, management of IP allocations to beneficiary institutions. The cost of setting up can be daunting and discouraging especially for an institution in its infancy stage.


Induction of new members to the UbuntuNet Alliance should include a formal meeting/discussion with either Board members or the Chief Executive Officer whereby the new member is provided with a full background of the Alliances activities and briefed on the expectations of the Alliance of the new NREN. The discussion should also allow for new members to ask questions and also provide feedback on their understanding of their role as well as intended plans.

Such a session would allow for discussions on who is responsible for what as well as what level of assistance is possible from the Alliance. Not all NRENs are managed and run by technical people, Xnet being a case in point, and sometimes assistance and advice is necessary in the infancy stages of a NREN. Given the various forms of communication available, the meeting can take place through various means, such as, Skype, Instant Messaging (IM), a conference call or even a face-face session where possible.

As NRENs create possibilities for research collaboration, both nationally and internationally, institutions as well as individuals also need to consider intellectual property rights and the preservation of copyrights for any research work they embark on. They need to ensure that they have in place policies and contracts that protect them from being exploited. At some point this discussion will have to be entered into in order to sensitise potential researchers on the pros and cons of research.

Internationally there is a growing demand for Africa’s resources and as a result Africa needs to protect herself from exploitation. As more research opportunities become available through NRENs proper policies need to be developed in order to safeguard the intellectual rights of all material developed in the process.

In addition, research funding needs to become more prominent in the national budgets. Funding should be set aside annually to support those individuals willing to embark on research projects. Currently, research is not readily undertaken as this usually involves an additional work load and sometimes even salary sacrifices for the individual(s) concerned.

Those who do take the time to conduct research tend to favour international journals for the publication of their research papers. As pointed out earlier, the majority of these journals are not readily accessible to people on the African continent. And yet, the research is, more often than not, based on local circumstances with insightful revelations and recommendations.


The establishment of a NREN is not an easy task – as mentioned above, however, the benefits accrued from such an initiative are extremely relevant for the development of the nation. Research and innovation are the development pillars of the 21st century.

Africa has to build up a generation of researchers and innovators who will come up with meaningful research targeted at specific problems endemic to their countries. The continent cannot afford to rely on solutions from well meaning international institutions. Only through collaborative research – whether locally, regionally or internationally – can we hope to compete on the international arena.

Governments need to ensure that they are aware of all the research being carried out in their countries and should make it a point to ensure that they have copies of the final research papers published. Copies of these papers should be made available at public institutions such as libraries and tertiary institutions for public access. In order to do so research councils need to be established and be seen to be active in streamlining and overseeing research within the country.

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4 Responses to “NREN Opportunities and Challenges: the Xnet Development Alliance Trust experience”

  1. Nii Quaynor

    I applaud this paper as it details the issues we face very well. The conclusion is well advised on the need to build vibrant research community and role of governments. It may well be that Governments need to independently fund local research for development purposes in all domains. It is from those projects and related works that appreciation would occur

  2. Ousmane MOUSSA TESSA

    Despite the challenges faced by NRENs in construction, one can't stop effort to overcome and going to harvest the succulent fruits revealed as opportunities. We have to learn about the recommendations and see how to mobilize all the stakeholders to move forward; there is no other way to proceed.

  3. It's too bad that that XNET was a cause of SchoolNet Namibia's closure. SchoolNet was amazing, and amazingly open. XNET not so much.

  4. am totally agreed with the article , because i show the trend NREN in Africa for developing local research and make the capacity building for research in Africa.



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