Microfinance has become a buzzword of the decade, raising the provocative notion that even philanthropy aimed at alleviating poverty can be profitable to institutional and individual investors. Instead of merely writing a check (then writing it off), why not make a tidy profit from a short-term, high-interest loan, most for under $200, so that a Mexican seamstress may buy a new sewing machine? Or so a Moroccan farmer can buy chickens so he may sell more eggs? Billionaires, global leaders and Nobel Prize recipients are hailing these direct loans to uncollateralized would-be entrepreneurs as a way to lift them out of poverty while creating self-sustaining businesses.
That promise has had a magnetic effect on private capital sources. Microfinance funding from private investors more than tripled to $2 billion in 2006. The field has attracted sterling banks and fund managers, including Citigroup (nyse: C - news - people ), blue-chip venture capitalists like Sequoia Capital, tycoons like eBay (nasdaq: EBAY - news - people ) founder Pierre Omidyar and Oscar-winning screen stars such as Robert Duvall--they've all joined the chase for returns in microfinance. Today, there are upward of 12,000 microfinance institutions issuing loans.
To help investors parse them, Forbes compiled its first-ever list of the Top Microfinance Institutions. ...
Here is the listing to the Top 50.