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IZERE Coffee taking great beans directly to the people

Deborah Ntawigirira
Deborah Ntawigirira

“When you come to a new country, the only thing you have in excess is hope,” said Deborah Ntawigirira, founder and CEO of Ottawa’s IZERE Coffee. “I had a lot of hope and faith in the future, because I had heard a lot of good things about Canada.”

Ntawigirira also had a passion for coffee, and soon discovered that Canadians did, too. Throughout high school and into university, she nurtured an interest in entrepreneurship and a desire to create a business that would unite her native Burundi with Canada.

“Burundi has great coffee,” she said.

Ntawigirira’s mother back home worked in the coffee business. A visit back to Burundi and months spent working side by side with local bean farmers, inspired mother and daughter to launch IZERE Coffee. 

That was 2014. IZERE has grown through a B2B strategy, first importing and selling Burundian green beans to coffee roasters, and then expanding to also sell locally roasted beans to grocers, cafes and restaurants.

It’s not just about the beans, but the entire value chain between that small farmer in the hills and the cup in your hand. IZERE Coffee was founded on the values of hope and faith. It works to ensure every actor in that value chain has a strong sense of ownership and is treated with fairness and dignity.

Pandemic drives shift from B2B to B2C

IZERE Coffee’s business model hit a serious speed bump with the pandemic. Lockdowns and physical distancing measures sharply affected cafes and restaurants. Demand dropped for IZERE Coffee’s beans. Ntawigirira realized that she had to market directly to the consumer.

“With the pandemic, we had to rethink everything – what are the strategies that will allow us to remain operational and be respectful of all the safety measures in place?”

The challenge was that IZERE Coffee lacked an online presence suited to B2C e-commerce. Its website hadn’t been designed for that purpose.

Ntawigirira had long recognized how important it is to be part of a community of entrepreneurs who support one another. Over the years, she had often looked to the network of support available through Invest Ottawa. When Invest Ottawa announced its partnership with Ontario’s Digital Main Street (DMS) program, she was quick to take advantage of it and qualify for a digital transformation grant.

“DMS came at just the right time, and I had a lot of trust in Invest Ottawa,” she said.

In September, Invest Ottawa’s DMS Transformation Team worked with Ntawigirira to develop a winning B2C strategy for IZERE Coffee. This included creating a new brand logo, expanding her social media presence, optimizing her website design and functionality as well as broadening her website content.

First Canada, then the world

“It has been awesome to work with that team, be able to share my vision, and make it happen in a very short time,” she said.

Through DMS shopHERE, Ntawigirira has also worked with Shopify to create her e-commerce storefront. 

“I always wanted to work with Shopify and they are always there for me.”

IZERE coffee is now equipped with the marketing tools and online platform to expand its customer base with confidence. 

“It’s exciting to see your brand come to life through creative, but without understanding your ‘why,’ your competitors and most importantly, your target markets, the creative will miss the mark,” said IZERE’s DMS business advisor, Ryan Gencarelli. “Deborah quickly understood these foundational aspects and how they applied to IZERE. Her updated logo, online shop and website reflect that.”

While it’s still early days to gauge how well this B2C investment will pay off, Ntawigirira has seen enough to be optimistic. Especially when she considers that her online storefront can support international sales.

“The potential is high, and sales volumes are growing,” she said. “We are raising the flags of both countries, to first be a Burundian and Canadian company serving Canada with high-quality coffee and then be international if we can.”

Her advice for other business owners still considering working with Invest Ottawa and DMS?

“I highly recommend it – take this route, seek the experts’ advice that’s there for free, ask questions. We are all being inspired and educated. It’s a great time for business owners to be part of a community where we understand each other and share the same struggles.”