Esther Phiri Rises to Prominence Despite Limited Sponsorship Avenues in Southern Africa
By JOSEPH J. SCHATZ
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 4, 2008

LUSAKA, Zambia – Just a few years ago, Esther Phiri was a struggling single mother with a sixth-grade education selling vegetables on the street in Mutendere, an impoverished neighborhood of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.

Last month, Ms. Phiri left Africa for the first time as a world boxing titleholder.

[Esther Phiri]
Landov
Esther Phiri (left) lands a punch against Kelli Coffer during a 2006 boxing match in Nairobi that Ms. Phiri won in an upset, sparking her surprising rise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After winning the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF) super featherweight world title – her third title — three months ago, Ms. Phiri left Zambia July 8 for a three-week European training tour designed to expose her to top-level international talent and, her managers hope, pave the way for a title fight in Europe or the United States.

“Exposure is very important, not only in Africa,” Ms. Phiri, 25, noted as she sat inside the Lusaka offices of her corporate sponsor, the National Milling Corporation Ltd. “Life has changed.”

For over a century boxing has been known as a long-shot avenue to success for athletic strivers from poor areas. But Ms. Phiri’s rise from the slums to stardom as Zambia’s first female boxing champion sounds extreme even by her sport’s standards. It is also a window into the challenges and opportunities of the sports business in Africa – and how Ms. Ms. Phiri and her corporate promoters have parlayed her prowess in the ring into the highest profile sports endorsement in the history of this peaceful but stubbornly poor southern African country.

One of eight children, Ms. Phiri grew up in a two-room house, and financial pressures forced her to leave school in the sixth grade after her father died. By the age of 16, she was pregnant.

But through a local non-governmental organization focused on HIV awareness and sports, Ms. Phiri began boxing and developed the punching technique that in 2003 brought her to the attention of Anthony “Preacherman” Mwamba, a retired Zambian boxer who had advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Now a trainer and promoter, Mr. Mwamba saw promise in her and began training her and started arranging fights.

After a series of unimpressive first bouts, Ms. Phiri entered a fight with Ohio’s Kelli Cofer, the reigning WIBF Intercontinental Junior Lightweight titleholder, in Nairobi in 2006. Ms. Phiri shocked the spectators by winning an eight-round decision.

Suddenly she was a champion. But that posed a problem – her team had to come up with the money to stage a title defense.

[Esther Phiri and Anthony Mwamba]
Joseph J. Schatz
Esther Phiri with her trainer and manager, Anthony Mwamba.

Promoting athletics – much less women’s boxing – is difficult in Zambia, which has seen its economic fortunes fluctuate with the price of copper, its major export, since becoming independent from Great Britain in 1964. Despite recent economic growth, neither Zambian corporations nor the government have much room in their budgets for sports.

“I had a vision, I had talent, but I had no sponsors,” Mr. Mwamba says. He approached Peter Cottan, general manager of National Milling, a former government-owned company. Now a subsidiary of U.S.-based Seaboard Corp., the company produces the cornmeal that Zambians use to make their national staple, a white porridge called nshima.

Looking to improve his company’s image, Mr. Cottan decided National Milling would pay for the fight, at a cost of about $18,000. Then, he said with a laugh, “I held my breath for the whole of the eight rounds. It was a fantastic, exciting experience.”

Ms. Phiri beat her Bulgarian challenger, and the next day Cottan brought Ms. Phiri and Mwamba into his office and signed her up to a binding and exclusive two-year endorsement deal as the company’s “brand icon.” That means Ms. Phiri wears National Milling gear, appears on billboards across Zambia touting the “Mealie Meal of Champions” and goes on road shows demonstrating products.

In return, the company is responsible for sponsoring all of her fights, managing the events, feeding and clothing Ms. Phiri and her team and paying the costs of her education. Purse money is negotiated fight by fight, and the company pays her a monthly retainer of $3,000, a huge sum in Zambia, and also pays Mr. Mwamba. The company’s total commitment is about $100,000, according to Mr. Cottan.

That may represent a huge sum in Zambia, but it remains a pittance when compared to what women boxers in other parts of the world can command. American Laila Ali counts Adidas AG among her sponsors, pulling in millions of sponsorship dollars a year, and ranks among the world’s top female athletes. Major athletes in southern Africa typically go abroad before signing endorsement deals. “It’s normal in the West, but it’s not normal in this area,” Mr. Cottan says.

Still, Ms. Phiri has become a household name in Zambia, and her fights draw government ministers and chanting children. The government gave her a house in a middle-class Lusaka neighborhood, where she now lives with her mother, her 9-year old daughter, and her late sister’s four children.

After defending her Global Boxing Union super featherweight intercontinental title against Puerto Rico’s Belinda Laracuente last November in a controversial decision, Ms. Phiri silenced some critics with a convincing win over Germany’s Elina Tissen to take the WIBF world title in April. Ms. Phiri, whose record now stands at 7-3-1, already held the WIBF intercontinental title.

Once teased by male boxers, Ms. Phiri now spars with them and says she hopes to be a role model for girls in a country where many women face cultural hurdles in everything from education to property rights – and where she is now held up by many as a sign of women’s progress. Ms. Phiri’s unusual status as a wealthy female athlete in a fairly traditional African culture draws intense and often sensational local media coverage. Her personal and business decisions have become quite public. Just last week Mr. Cottan made banner headlines for saying that Ms. Phiri shouldn’t rush her marriage plans, lest they complicate her boxing career.

And as a national heroine, Ms. Phiri gets no shortage of advice from all corners. None other than Zambia’s president, Levy Mwanawasa, last year wrote to Ms. Phiri’s managers warning them to let her rest adequately between fights.

To be sure, for her corporate sponsors and promoters, Ms. Phiri’s success isn’t simply a heartwarming rags-to-riches story – she’s making them money, as Mr. Cottan is not shy to explain. “Now, National Milling is on the tip of everyone’s tongue,” he notes.

While getting other corporate sponsors for women’s fights in Zambia remains difficult, Mr. Mwamba hopes Ms. Phiri’s rise will prompt new support for Zambian athletes, like the two Zambian boxers who will compete in the Olympics next month in Beijing.

As Ms. Phiri trains and spars in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, her team is looking beyond her Oct. 4 bout in Lusaka with American boxer Angel McNamara. Mr. Mwamba says the key will be improving her footwork.

“We want to show the world she can even do it outside the country,” he says.

Write to Joseph J. Schatz at joseph.schatz@gmail.com

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