“As the years go by, coffee education is becoming handy. People want to drink better coffee, and they want to understand where it comes from. And some even push the envelope – they want to feel a part of a community. When they spend their buck on a cup of coffee, they can know they’re investing in other people’s lives.” – Deborah Ntawigirira
4.5 mins | 990 words
By: Katie LeClair
Izere Coffee is a family-run business co-founded by a mother-daughter team. In Ottawa, they sell high-quality Burundian beans at local shops. They also fill orders online and deliver to coffee lovers directly. But to know co-founder Deborah Ntawigirira is to know, Izere Coffee is so much more than that.
Izere Coffee is a direct trade business; as the buyer, they work directly with producers. That means they purchase beans from farmers they know and work with cooperatives that share their values. What’s behind the choice to operate this way? Deborah explained that through the business, they want to create a higher quality of life for farmers.
According to their website, “Izere represents hope and faith – values that exemplify the Burundian people’s resilience and optimism.” When you buy Izere Coffee beans, you support a business that treats every actor in the value chain with dignity and respect.
Their story from the beginning
The story of how Izere Coffee came to be is a personal one. Deborah describes herself as a “kid from the war.” She left Burundi as a teenager due to insecurities and, 14 years ago, came to Ottawa hoping for a better future. But she always dreamed of starting a business that built a stronger link between her native country and her home country.
“I could see a link between those two homes. The first was me. And the second could be the business I could create.” This dream started to come together when Deborah’s mom invited her to Burundi to experience coffee production from A-Z. Her mother was already in the cultivation business and wanted her to experience firsthand what washing stations were really like.
That’s where the “ah-ha” moment happened.
“I spend four months in Burundi working with bean farmers. I saw the poverty and resiliency of the people and their faith in coffee production being better. And I saw what women’s economic empowerment can do.” She went on to explain what she thought of her experiences in Ottawa.
“Since I’ve gotten here [to Canada], I’ve always seen at least one Canadian in the streets with a coffee in hand. We’re coffee lovers.” Deborah went on to say, “As the years go by, coffee education is becoming handy. People want to drink better coffee, and they want to understand where it comes from. And some even push the envelope – they want to feel a part of a community. When they spend their buck on a cup of coffee, they can know they’re investing in other people’s lives.”
It was 2014. Deborah was graduating from the University du Québec en Outaouais-UQO. Her focus was on finishing her studies and starting Izere Coffee. But she was new at this. Deborah had never launched a company before, let alone a business with a product to import and export. There was a lot to process and tonnes to learn, with limited funds to do it.
Deborah set out to find people who could help. In her mind, the best step forward was talking to seasoned business owners – experts in Ottawa who had been there and done that. After a Google search, she stumbled on a link to Starter Company Plus, a 4-month cohort-based training program. Would she be selected? Did she even qualify? She wasn’t sure but said, “I saw the program and was like, ‘you know what, I’m just going to apply.'”
Starter Company Plus offers a grant of up to $5000 – that was a bonus. But Deborah was really after something else, “Mostly, I applied because of the education I would get, the context, the information and the connections.” In the end, Deborah was accepted and participating in the program paid off.
Now, six years later, like all business owners worldwide, Deborah faces a new obstacle: the pandemic.
Most of Izere Coffee’s sales were made business-to-business. They had to adjust and pivot by focusing on business-to-consumer sales.
How Invest Ottawa helped
Izere Coffee manages a lot of personal deliveries, with safety being their number one priority. “I started thinking, okay, I’ve got to have all the tools needed for me to complete transactions in a way that protects my clients, but also protect myself.” Deborah explained that she stays home unless fulfilling customers’ orders and invests in the proper protective equipment. Beyond this, she’s focused on the long-term sustainability of the company.
Deborah knew that Izere Coffee needed to “up their game” online.
In the Spotlight newsletter, she noticed Digital Main Street. In this program, she saw her chance to get hands-on help from digital marketing and sales experts – for free. “I have a lot of trust in Invest Ottawa. So, I know if there’s something out there that looks like I could apply, I do.”
Izere Coffee was accepted and assigned a Transformation Team. The team has helped Deborah with her website, re-branded her company, and built an online store. It’s been a lot of hard work in a very short period. Deborah spoke to her experience with Digital Main Street, saying, “I’ve never seen such initiative in my life. Wow. It’s really generous.”
CTV Morning Live interview with Deborah Ntawigirira
Deborah is a human-centred entrepreneur, running a socially responsible, mission-driven business. What she loves most about being Ottawa-based is the community.
“Business means doing business with people. It’s a people thing. I get to see Ottawa’s business side and its people, and I’m falling more in love. That inspires me to bring in great coffee.”
To her fellow early-stage business owners facing obstacles, she shares this piece of advice, “Dig deep, keep the right attitude the right motivation behind your reason why. And just keep on going.”
To learn more about the Digital Main Street program, visit our webpage.
A special thank you to the Government of Canada and specifically FedDev Ontario for making this program possible and enabling the team at Invest Ottawa to provide critical support to main street businesses when it is needed most.