If you want to be a genuine agent of change while being financially sustainable you need to be able to truly listen and interact with the people you are trying to serve. In order to do this, the following points are crucial.
1) You have to speak the local language, but it is often better to have a person from the country itself to do this otherwise answers often tend to be biased.
2) You have to start small with a minimum viable product and improve it on the basis of the feedback you get, a little like the lean startup approach.
3) You need the right attitude to be able to overcome every single barrier you encounter until you have truly achieved your mission.
4) Your business model should have clear incentives for every party within the chain. You might be driven by social incentives but for others it is often purely financial, especially at the start. (It may be more social after they have been educated to understand this aspect of business).
5) You have to work through existing networks but only if they truly have an interest in it. Other networks already exist for their own reasons and you have to ensure that their mission is in line with yours. This may sound obvious but it is easily forgotten. Besides the mission, the business model also needs to be in line. If their members are used to getting things for free while you want them to pay, you could run into difficulties. This is often the case when partnering with NGOs and aid organizations.
Dependency on each other needs to be in balance to ensure that both parties will put in the effort needed to make it work. If they do not, you can easily end up in a situation in which one of the parties treats mutual projects as secondary than giving them their best.
Expectations are often high at the start of partnerships but can easily turn sour when the first difficulties arise. Continuous efforts are needed from both sides to make it work, as well as flexibility in the model agreed on at the start. With governments you often have to put in a proposal and it is hard to change that once it has been agreed.
So before entering into a partnership, you should be very honest about your chances of success. Look carefully at the points mentioned and address concerns relating to each of them before you start.
In the case of Jiro-VE, a social enterprise that provides solar lights to people in Madagascar, we are deliberately not partnering with the national government because the political situation has been far from stable. We have had great success partnering with associations in the country who also have a social purpose and prefer to work with the private sector rather than NGOs and aid organizations, because a business mentality often allows for a greater sense of sustainability.
Photo credit main picture: 2012.07.14 Mamba Point (2) / Travis Lupick via Flickr