Burundi Coffee Industry – Coffee Talks

March 8th, 2021 Attendees Robin, Host and Rae, Host
Deborah Ntawigirira, Co-Founder & Managing Director


Rae: Hey, welcome to Burundi Coffee Industry Coffee Talks all about Burundi Izere with Rae and Robin. We’re going to be having a few conversations with different people that work in the coffee industry and we will be posting it to our IGtv. So stay tuned !

Robin: Our first conversation is with Deborah. She owns and operates Izere Coffee that Coffee Tree sells as Direct Trade. It’s from Burundi. Let’s get started!

Welcome. I’m very excited to be having this conversation. Burundi is my favorite coffee that we sell at the cafe. So actually do you mind if I start asking about the pronunciation?

Deborah: So my name is Deborah, Deborah is pretty easy. Then the pronunciation of my last name is what’s complicated but it looks like people are starting to get the pronunciation. You might be able to do it really quickly. It’s Ntawigirira (Na- we-gi-ri–a).

Robin: I pronounce the coffee I-ze- ray? Is that how you pronounce it? Deborah: I pronounce it e-ze-ray but i-ze-ray works too.

Robin: What does Izere mean? Where does it come from?
Deborah: Izere means having faith, believe. The name came from the fact that, I think as every entrepreneur, you need faith. You need to believe in something in order to actually create your vision, to create the mission you have with your business.

Also Izere could mean, for me, I believe in God, in a brighter future, for any project and for life in general. This particular is for coffee, Izere coffee.

Where exactly is Burundi?

Robin: Your coffee comes from Burundi. One of the most common questions we get at the cafe is where/what is Burundi?

Deborah: Burundi is in East Africa. It borders Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania. It is a landlocked country, it has the second deepest lake in the world after Lake Baikal, a lake called Tanganyika. it’s a beautiful tropical country that has a lot of high hills but also plains. It is a country that really is truly beautiful. When you look on a map, it’s going to look small. It’s almost at the heart of Africa.

Robin: You were born there right?
Deborah: Yes, I was born there.
Robin: What was it like living there when you were younger?

Deborah: I was born and raised there until the age of 16-17. Growing up, there was a civil war. Though there was tension and war, I have great, beautiful souvenirs of Burundi. For example, one of the logos that we use is kids running to jump into lake Tanganyika. That’s one of my souvenirs. It was hard but it was a beautiful experience at the same time. It taught us to be resilient, it taught us to always live every day as the last one.

Rae: So when did you end up moving here? You moved here for school right?

Deborah: Yes, I moved here for school. I moved here for security and school. For a better future. That was in 2006. When I got here, I had to finish my high school and then go afterwards into university. I had to find jobs, small jobs to be able to survive. I did fall in love with Canada very fast. When the snow started coming into the picture, I started to doubt a bit. But I fell in love with Canada, yes.

Rae: You’re also based in Ottawa right? There is a lot of snow in Ottawa.

Deborah: I would like to show you outside, It’s happening right now!

Rae: Did you decide right away that you would want to stay in Canada?

Deborah: I had heard a lot of great things about Canada. When i got here it was true. It’s a country where you can hope that the future is going to be brighter. I actually stayed in Ottawa.

Rae: You opened your business in Ottawa?

Deborah: Correct, I opened my business in Ottawa. In the meantime, there were a lot of things that happened. I went to university, I was working at the same time. My mom inspired me, she already knew that i wanted something that would link Burundi and Canada. Coffee was awesome and a good thing. Later on my mom was in the coffee business. So she said “you know what Deborah, you should come and see how the coffee business is going in Burundi and perhaps create a business”. That where we went from there!

Robin: Do you sell all through Ontario or all through Canada? How big do you operate?
Deborah: Currently, in Canada we’re mostly in Ontario, a bit in Quebec, the surroundings of Ottawa. We haven’t been in Vancouver but that’s’ where we would like to get someday. Canada is huge!

Robin: Because you are a Direct Trade company, can you explain what that means?

Deborah: Direct Trade means that we bring in coffee that we directly get from coffee growers. Coffee growers in Burundi are organized in coffee co-ops. It’s from them, to us, to the cup. That’s what Direct Trade stands for. Direct Trade helps us a lot in order to share the benefits fairly but also be able to have a respectful conversation that helps with the development of coffee culture, programs that help coffee growers, programs that help the field in general. It’s one of the reasons why I think Direct Trade exists.

Rae: I think there are a lot of people who are very interested in where coffee actually comes from. It’s very common now for our customer to be asking more about the story behind the coffee. It’s really awesome for us to be able to work with direct partners.

Deborah: That’s the route we want to keep on going; be as direct as we can. Eventually we’re looking into having our own farm. To be able to work with coffee growers and be able to do projects that we can be more hands, on as a company.

Rae: Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you’re most proud of?

Deborah: COVID-19 disturbed my plans, of course. I was hoping to go back and see what we could do more of. Currently I work with co-ops, one of the co-ops we’re working with works with woman transport. If a woman is pregnant and needs to see a doctor they can help with the car. There is a program with coffee pulps. Instead of wasting them they are used to maintain the coffee tree. All these things are really nice, not only to encourage them but to see other things we can do. That’s what I wanted to do. I could try and do it from here but I would love to go there and work on some specific projects.

Robin: When I think of coffee I don’t often think of Burundi as a coffee producing country. When I read it was the 29th most coffee producing country in the world, it’s actually quite crazy when you think about how many countries produce coffee. What’s coffee culture like in Burundi?

Deborah: In Burundi, we’re not necessarily consumers of coffee. Most of our coffee goes outside of the country. Which is why you read that. We’ve always been a country that exports coffee. There is a lot of experience in coffee, that is the reason why it’s one of your favourite coffees. The coffee culture has been there for a long time. The practises are very organic, the coffee is from the high hills of Burundi, which absorbs the beauty that is around. When you’re cupping it you can taste some of the goodness. It is true that we need more improvement in making that coffee more known. It’s my mission for people to know Burundian coffee, especially in Canada.

For example, you know, or your friend, the customers of Coffee Tree come and say, “we know where Burundi is and we know how awesome this coffee is”. That’s the type of campaign we’d like to do for the Burundi coffee to be known.

Robin: Rachel and I were laughing today because three customers back-to-back- came in and went “I’d like a pound of Burundi”. We thought “that’s awesome”.

I have a background in International Development, for me coffee isn’t always about the taste, it’s a lot about what happens behind the taste. When I was getting ready for this interview I was reading a lot, and found out Statistica lists Burundi as the lowest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita in 2020. Direct Trade is extremely important because the higher the GDP the higher the infrastructure, the higher the infrastructure the better the country is able to operate. Being a landlocked country it depends so much on the people around it, not just itself. You don’t get to export to a port, you have to export to a border. I really want to point out that it’s our responsibility as consumers to purchase responsibly and doing something that is direct trade, that is from a country that you don’t see exports in Canada very often, is just as important as how good it tastes.

Deborah: That’s a 100% right, that’s where the future is, it’s more than a cup of coffee. Coffee is one of the products that will help a lot with development. There are so many ways to do great things with coffee. I will always insist on finding a great mission. The mission of Izere Coffee is to bring high quality coffee but directly for the customers to feel as they are part of the movement, they are part of a big family.

Robin: Coffee is such a big export out of Burundi, but it’s also a seasonal crop. How do dynamics work with employees during the off season and how do you manage when you have ebbs and flows, as every business has.

Deborah: In general, in the coffee industry, in the coffee field in Burundi, what happens is during the summer we get coffee, afterwards during the time we’re able to sell the coffee growers are able to maintain the coffee trees, but also work on other cultures*. If they’re growing bananas, they’re not around, If they’re growing any culture, in the meantime, that’s what they do.

Izere as you know, my mom created a company there that is sending me the green beans, so in the meantime the Izere sells the coffee we brought already from the coffee co-ops. Yes, it is true we only get coffee in the summer but in the meantime there are other things being done, until we go back to the next season.

Robin: You briefly mentioned COVID-19 affecting your ability to go back and work on projects.How has COVID-19 not only affected production but also exports? As we mentioned it’s a landlocked country, you have to jump over a lot more barriers than other countries have to.

Deborah: It has affected Izere Coffee, if I’m planning to get more coffee I have to plan earlier because it takes longer to get the coffee beans. Thankfully, for Coffee Tree I still have enough. I’m still thankful, I would say firstly the prices are a bit higher because it is a bit more expensive and also the time around getting the coffee.

Robin: We’ve noticed because the demand for coffee due to everyone working from home has gone up, prices of a lot of things in the coffee industry have been rising.

Deborah: I would say for Coffee Tree lovers and for Burundi coffee, don’t worry we are still here. We currently have coffee here right now.

Robin: What would happen if the borders in Burundi closed? How would the dynamic of your business change?

Deborah: If Burundi coffee is not available and there is coffee in another country surrounding Burundi. We have an East African community, it is a group of countries in eastern Africa. One of the options I was thinking is perhaps, if that happens, which I doubt, we could get coffee from an East African country to bring in a high quality coffee. That would be one of the options. So far it looks good.

Robin: It’s interesting that you mentioned the East African Community because when I was at the UN a couple years ago, they were talking about how trade within Africa was only at 13%. I’m happy to hear that there is this intertwine of countries that are pulling each other up.

Rae: I’m wondering what it’s like being business partners with your mom?
*culture: other agriculture industries. Such as maintaining other crops, working on other farms.

Deborah: It’s awesome! I love it, thankfully it’s International Women’s Day soon and that’s why we’re here. She’s an example because of her resilience, of what she had to go through, how she fought against all the fights she had to fight. Her professionalism, her big heart, her hope to help in the development of Burundi or in Africa in general. Also, her love of Canada. She’s the one that told me about Canada. She used to talk to me about this country, a beautiful country. I think she’s awesome, she is my mother, I see her as my mother, but she’s also my business partner. I get to meet the real person she is and her ambitions, strength and that’s a lot of moms. There are single moms, moms fighting against Cancer, moms that are struggling right now or even before, in their business. Big up to all the moms, my mama as well. Thank you to Coffee Tree for organizing this because it’s not often that we say “to every woman actually, hopefully they will be listening to us, keep going, we love you, you’re the best. You’re strong, your strength is amazing. The world will change a lot if woman have their place, the right place that they deserve”

What does it mean to be a woman in the coffee industry?

Rae: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the coffee industry?

Deborah: It’s an opportunity to bring change where it’s needed. To me, women’s leadership, and I’m not going to say that there are no exceptions, but women in business are more nurturing, there is a more nurturing side of the business when a woman is leading. There is less ego, for all the dads and gentlemen, I love you, but it’s true. Some of them actually say it. I remember I used to have a professor of economy at university, one day he told me “ you know Deborah, in Africa, and all over the world, if there were more leadership of women the world would change”. That ture, and that was a few years ago and I’m seeing it a lot

Robin: Because it is such a male dominated industry, is it also the same in Burundi? Do you find that it’s very male dominated in Burundi as well?

Deborah: Yes, there is the International Women’s Association, something like that, that has women leaders in coffee. We also see a lot of women picking the beans. You will see on our website beautiful smiles and people in Burundi. They are picking the right coffee beans to put in that 60kg bag. That is where you will see a lot of women. We need more of them as leaders in coffee. Giving their place and making sure the money they work for actually goes to them directly. There is room for improvement definitely.

Robin: Like any industry, During black history month we really tried to talk about the truth behind coffee. It’s an industry that was built off of people of colour but these people don’t get to reap the rewards that are meant to be distributed properly. Not only are you a woman, but you are a person of colour. How has that affected the way your business is run and the opportunities that have been presented to you?

Deborah: That is another thing I always have in my mind. It’s looking into the history, not avoiding the history, facing the history. Also, at the same time seeing the opportunity to actually try and make a change, to make a change as a black woman. Remembering what we need to do, where the luck is and trying to work towards the goal of making sure we don’t treat people unfairly that are in the coffee business. We need to encourage people to have that reflection of educating themselves on the history but also understanding and encouraging a lot of people. I have to say thank you to a lot of people especially in Canada, especially in Ottawa that were supporting us as black people. There were a lot of initiatives, we have Black is Beautiful, a beer that has Izere in it from a beer brewery here in Ottawa. With the Black is Beautiful beer there were some benefits that go to black professionals here in Ottawa. Initiatives like that and also educating people is very important whether in coffee and other stuff.

How will the coffee industry evolve over the next ten years?

Robin: We have one last question. How do you think the coffee industry both here and in Burundi is going to look in the next 10 years? How would you want it to look like in the next ten years?

Deborah: I would like to continue creating that link between Canada and Burundi or the East African community but specifically Burundi. I would like to keep on bringing high quality coffee and making sure people feel a part of this movement. We said earlier, everyone that’s gonna take a cup of coffee even if it might feel like it’s a bit more expensive should understand why it’s a bit more expensive, and to understand that you’re not only enjoying a great cup of coffee but you’re part of a huge history, a beautiful story. I’d like in 10 years to be able to have done as much education as possible through you. For example, every time you’re serving the coffee you share it’s history. I really appreciate you but would like more of you, even more of you and that will help.

Robin: I think that’s another reason why I like your coffee so much, you entrust us to represent it and in that you educate us so we feel like we’re part of it.

Deborah: Thank you so much. Big hug to Susan because I think Susan was my second customer. I didn’t know a lot and she started to educate me herself about coffee and looking into the coffee shop. I had explained that I was about to start the business. I’m thankful to you. I’m very thankful to Susan and I encourage every person to go get Coffee Tree coffee. We appreciate you all.

Robin: Thank you for speaking with us. I really appreciate it.
Deborah: Thank you this was awesome. Have a great day and hopefully we’ll see you soon.

To learn more about Burundi Izere coffee, click here.  https://medium.com/@lisalyt/ottawas-rise-of-movers-and-shakers-aren-t-just-coming-from-government-d30a415ba36e

About the author: Susan Bate
Nothing beats enjoying my morning coffee in the great outdoors