In the Wild with Deborah Ntawigirira, Co-Founder of Izere Coffee

In our In the Wild series, we interview Canadian entrepreneurs to hear their stories and learn what they wish when starting out.

Shortly after immigrating and while in high school, Deborah knew she would start a business that would link Burundi and Canada. In her interview, she shares how she took it from a wild idea to a growing business and partnerships with craft breweries. Here’s what she’s learned along the way – and what she wished she knew when starting out.

What inspired your wild idea?

I’m happy you call it a wild idea, because in the beginning, starting a business really is a wild idea.

Originally, I’m from Burundi. When I arrived here in 2006 and was still in high school, I already had the vision of starting a business that would link Burundi and Canada.

I told my mom, and because she was already in the coffee industry, she suggested coffee. Everyone from Burundi – and some of Europe – already know Burundi has amazing coffee.  But it’s not as well known in North America.

I knew the idea had potential when I would look around and see so many Canadians with coffee – all the time. Carrying a coffee while waiting for a bus, shopping, on their way to work.

Since I hadn’t heard of anyone else selling Burundian coffee in Canada, I thought it could be a great business idea. So, my mom and I decided to go for it.



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How did you come up with the name?

At first, I thought Izera.  Because Izera, in Kirundi, means having faith. Because I think, as an entrepreneur, that’s the first thing you need to have. You need to believe in the business you’re creating.

And personally, I believe in God, so this word is even more meaningful to me. I suggested the name to my mom. She liked it, but also corrected me because she’s more fluent in the language.

What I didn’t know is the pronunciation of Izere makes a difference. She said, we don’t say Izera (ize-rah), we say Izere (ize-reh), which also means hope. Izera (ize-rah) is the adjective, not the noun. So, we went with Izere (ize-reh).


What makes Izere coffee so special?

Izere coffee beans aren’t your typical beans. They’re single origin, specialty coffee beans grown in micro lots by Burundian farmers. Our coffee beans hold an 85 or above on the quality scale – which is a very good rating. The coffee comes from the high hills of Burundi. The high altitude is great for the coffee. And it’s organic.

So, there’s the coffee itself, which is very high quality. But what really makes Izere special is the people. The first time I went to Burundi to meet the coffee growers, I was so inspired.

I met amazing people doing great things – amazing women, great fathers – all very skilled and passionate about what they do. I was inspired by their stories and knew I wanted to create a business that could help them and showcase the product of all their hard work.



I thought, even if I start small, I can still do something to help them. You don’t need to go big on day one. Over time, the business can grow and do more. So, you really just need to start.


What are some of the core values driving your business?

We have three. High quality coffee. Giving back. And inclusivity.

We’re committed to showcasing the talents and passion of the Burundian micro-farmers, which together with the amazing growing conditions, produces high quality coffee.

For giving back, whether it’s in Canada or Burundi, we make sure we work with coffee co-ops and partners that give back to community and pay fair wages.

And for inclusivity, we always try to create opportunities to support women, whether in Canada or Burundi. We will always strive for equal representation of the two countries.


How are you weaving purpose into your business?

First, we always make sure we’re paying the workers well, and that’s not something every coffee company can say. We believe what we’re doing needs to be fair and sustainable for the farming communities.

Another way is by working with coffee co-ops that have their own community-driven projects. Some of the co-ops we work with pay the school fees for local kids, some support women in the community, and some have incredibly high environmental standards – like re-using coffee pulp as fertilizer or using natural alternatives to chemical pesticides.

We’re not just looking for great coffee beans. Everyone we partner with is doing something that’s great for the community. It’s very exciting.


Speaking of great partners, you’ve been working on some exciting collaborations. Can you tell us about them?

As time passes, I’ve learned there are a number of ways to give back, and one of the ways is by collaborating with other like-minded businesses. Collaboration is good for the community and for the economy.

We’ve recently collaborated with two local breweries. Whiprsnapr and Beyond the Pale.

Whiprsnapr has used our coffee for their beers.

With Beyond the Pale, we just celebrated “Cosmic Latte” and it was very popular. We’re hoping to expand to others. They approached me with the first beer that was “Black is Beautiful” supporting Black entrepreneurs. And I’m really happy about how they’re growing. Maybe they’ll become international beers one day!



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What would you say is a key ingredient in your success?

It starts with the name of the company. Izere. Faith, hope, believing. All entrepreneurs need that. You need to believe in your project.

If you want to successfully present it to people, you need to believe it yourself first. To be able to share, define, or articulate it for other people so they can understand it and be able to contribute somehow, that’s a key ingredient to success.


What are some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting out?



In the beginning, having a great idea and having my mom behind me helped a lot. But I still had challenges. The hardest part starting out was getting the initial funding I needed to buy the beans. So, I saved everything I could from what I was earning at my other job. I was motivated by the vision. It was hard, but I did it.


Another big challenge was knowing which doors to knock on to learn how to start a company here in Canada. I needed to learn. But the good news is that many of the doors I knocked on were able to give me the right answers.

I’ll always be thankful to our local entrepreneurship and start-up incubator, Invest Ottawa. They’ve been there since day one, with everything from business planning to legal advice.


Another challenge was cold calling clients. I had to pick up the phone and ask people to try the samples. But with persistence, I was able to get where I needed to go.


If you were to go back to when you started the business in 2014, what advice would you give yourself?

Knowing what I know now, I think financially, I could have asked for financing. Other than that, I think I did my best. That’s the important thing. Just do your best and be persistent in that.



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How do you define success?

My definition of success is respecting the vision you had when you created your business. Being able to say that I had the vision, the mission, and was able to accomplish all of it, or at least some of it, that’s successful.

Another key to success is to be able to create something that gives you the ability to give back. To receive and be able to give back. That’s how I define success.


How much time do you spend in a day or week working on your business?

It’s hard to quantify. I’d just say a lot. You’re always alert as an entrepreneur. If you get an email, you need to get up and respond.

One of the challenges is maintaining a balance between work and your needs – health wise.

But when you’re starting out, you need to be committed to making yourself available.

I have to stay alert with my business, responding on time, fulfilling orders, making sure everything’s in place. I’m always alert, so technically I’m working all the time. But it balances out. I have some busy weeks, and some not-so-busy weeks.


What are some of your daily rituals or habits that you can’t live without?

The daily rituals and habits I have come from the French phrase, “le client est roi”, which roughly translates to “the client is king” but my main takeaway from it is to always have my ear to the ground of what my clients need.

As an entrepreneur, there’s always room for improvement. I’m always writing down ways I can improve. And I’m regularly speaking to my partners, asking for feedback so I can learn from it.

You can’t wait to know everything before your start. As an entrepreneur, you have to actively commit to learning as you go.


After a long day, or long week, how do you unwind?

Personally, my happy place is in meditation and prayer. That’s how I disconnect from the world and get into another space. It helps me a lot.

One of the things that’s nice about it is that all you need is a space that’s quiet – in your home, in nature – anywhere that you can breathe, listen to yourself, or pray. That’s my happy place.

Electronics are becoming harder to disconnect from, so more and more we need to create that space.


What final piece of advice would you give someone just starting out?

The main piece of advice I want to share is – there are so many resources out there today. Go get it. You can’t wait for the answers to come to you. If you take the time to look for them, you’ll find them.

I always say that I’m so happy I created this business in Canada for this reason.

Write out your biggest needs right now, then go out and look for the answers. There are a lot of doors just waiting for you to knock on them.


To buy Izere Coffee’s excellent whole roasted beans, green beans and apparel, visit the online store.

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Sarah Gencarelli

Sarah’s an awarded brand strategist, copywriter, instructor, and entrepreneur. Sarah works closely with founders and marketing teams to clarify and amplify brand stories.

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