The founding of Envest was the result of a personal and professional journey that led Jon Bishop from biology to the business world. As a trained ecologist and avid environmentalist, his professional aspiration was to be part of the effort to protect the natural areas of the planet. While living in rural Panama, he came to understand that a great deal of deforestation resulted from the lack of economic opportunities for low-income people. It became clear that poverty was an obstacle to creating a sustainable economy. Further, the environment and the economy should not be in conflict with each other. Microfinance was emerging as a viable tool to provide opportunities to low-income people in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.
Jon returned to school and completed an MBA, which led to a job managing a microfinance fund focused on Nicaragua. Microfinance was the perfect fit for him. The fund he managed had an incredible impact on the lives of folks who would have had no other opportunity to gain access to credit and improve their families’ economic situations. The microfinance model worked, and there was a viable way for investors in the US to provide economic opportunity to people in Nicaragua and beyond.
The challenge for microfinance was, and remains, the inability to scale and satisfy the demand for credit globally. The estimated unmet global demand for credit was $320 billion, while the global microfinance sector was $50 to $80 billion. There were many financially viable microfinance institutions (MFIs) that were unable to borrow sufficient funds to meet their clients’ demands.
Envest was founded with the mission of bridging the gap between microfinance and capital markets. Capital markets represent the only viable source of financial resources necessary to meet the global demand for credit. An added benefit of shifting microfinance from the philanthropic sector to a business model based on capital markets is that the microfinance sector will not be competing with other environmental and social justice causes that have no revenue generating model available.
Envest was founded in 2006 and began lending operations in late 2007. It attracted a community of investors, supporters, and interns who shared the vision of using market-based business models to create economic opportunities in developing countries. Envest Microfinance Fund, LLC was founded in late 2012 to establish an investment vehicle that could raise capital from investors.
Envest disbursed its first loan in 2007 to an MFI in Nicaragua. By 2010, Envest had added MFI partners in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In 2014, Envest ventured outside of Latin America when it lent to two MFIs in Tajikistan. The following year, we began lending to MFIs in Kyrgyzstan and added additional partners in Tajikistan. From 2016 to 2018, we expanded into Africa and Eastern Europe, establishing lending relationships with MFIs in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, and Moldova. In 2021, Envest expanded into India.
The distinguishing characteristic of Envest is that we lend to very small MFIs on a for-profit basis. We understand that very small MFIs in countries often considered too risky for lending can be excellent lending partners who can create economic opportunities and social justice in their communities. We have built personal relationships with a high degree of trust with MFIs in 14 countries. We consider these personal relationships to be invaluable to Envest’s operations and to the global community. We strongly subscribe to the notion that borders frequented by merchants rarely need to be patrolled by soldiers.
Envest has grown in a grassroots fashion for the entire 17 years of its existence. Securities regulations present obstacles that make grassroots growth very challenging. The lack of economies of scale has made growth slow. Nevertheless, Envest has built a community of supporters committed to bridging the gap between microfinance and capital markets. It has also established a community of MFIs operated by highly dedicated and competent professionals who are using innovative models to provide credit to borrowers who would not have opportunities otherwise. We welcome into our community kindred spirits who are interested in using sound business practices to increase access to capital markets as we continue to carry out our mission.