Charmaine Houvet, Senior Public Policy Director & Growth for Africa at Cisco, talks ‘living with purpose and intention’ through ESG practices

Charmaine Houvet, Senior Public Policy Director & Growth for Africa at Cisco, talks ‘living with purpose and intention’ through ESG practices

Written by Staff Writer

Oct 5, 2021

By Charndré Emma Kippie


Charmaine Houvet is a highly motivated and proactive executive, who operates with a strong sense of urgency, undertakes complex assignments, is assertive, meets tight deadlines and thrives in a fast paced dynamic environment. She is an excellent strategic communicator, strategist, analytical thinker, self-starter, credible leader, trainer, who has worked in multi-stakeholder situations requiring negotiation, collaboration, influencing, facilitation, strong networks and relationships. 


Please provide a brief outline of your background.

I have over two decades of telecommunications experience working with private and public sector organisations across Africa. I joined Cisco with several years’ experience as a Senior Executive in complex, diverse and transformative roles with high profile leading ICT companies. I lead Cisco’s government affairs strategy, regulatory, and public policy efforts across Africa. I partner with an ecosystem of stakeholders in the public & private sector, academia, and civil society to advance the digitisation agenda across the continent. This includes shaping and advancing strategies that foster innovation and digital technologies. I am passionate about transformation and the advancement of the ICT sector especially women in the sector and am the recipient of several business awards in recognition of my vision, collaboration, leadership, and achievements in the ICT sector. I serve pro-bono on various boards and trusts that align to my interests and passion of advancing digitisation efforts across the continent. I hold a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) qualification.


Please tell us a bit about Cisco.  

Cisco helps seize the opportunities of tomorrow by proving that amazing things can happen when you connect the unconnected. Our company’s purpose is to ‘Power an Inclusive Future for all. At Cisco, we believe that we can harness technology to step up to the world’s biggest challenges and create new possibilities for tomorrow. We believe in a world with equal access to opportunity. A world in which businesses operate with all aspects of society in mind, not just the majority.


What does your role at Cisco entail?

I am charged with advancing issues that support Cisco’s robust corporate and technology policy agenda. This includes shaping policies that foster innovation and digital technologies, promoting broadband adoption, and protecting global competitiveness.


What does ‘Sustainability’ mean to you?

Sustainability to me is about living with purpose and intention which is ingrained in my daily practices from a personal and business perspective, always paying it forward whenever I can. It’s about taking personal accountability for my actions, to ensure that I leave this world in a better place to serve not only current but future generations as well. It’s about understanding that my actions will impact others and about being kind to the earth so that it will be kind to me and future generations. It is also about being intentional about my employer of choice being clear about how they help people and communities grow and develop.


Why are you passionate about ESG initiatives?

ESG enables me and many others to become increasingly aware of and concerned with how we and our companies show up on issues that are impacting society especially vulnerable communities. ESG initiatives both encourage, drive, and support this awareness. In agreement with Cisco’s EVP and CFO Scott Herren, a strong ESG proposition can help companies attract and retain talent when the company stands for something that people believe in. I am inspired by Cisco leadership shown in dedicating 100 million over the next 10 years to fast-track start-ups that drive technology that has a significant impact on the climate crisis. Our investment is a long-term play and is not all directly tied to Cisco, which is so powerful. 

Strengthening our commitment to bold leadership are Cisco’s innovative product design where products are designed to use less electricity when in use; a significant benefit that is passed onto our customers. It is these initiatives built on ESG fundamentals that make me passionate about ESG initiatives. It’s witnessing first-hand how working for a company like Cisco that is incredibly creative around how we balance short, medium, long terms levers and how we engage our people and an ecosystem of stakeholders to influence and implement positive change in all aspects of our lives.


What important trends have you witnessed in the last year in terms of Sustainability in SA?

Covid has changed everything about how we work, live, think and play with more of a reliance on technology becoming evident. Covid has accelerated our progress from an ESG perspective, especially if one is clear and intentional about their purpose. I have seen more organisations in South Africa using innovation and collaboration technology to find the solutions required to contribute to the sustainable development journey. We have witnessed how the government and many stakeholders are turning to technology and innovation to provide solutions to many of Africa’s problems and are working in a more collaborative manner to explore how 4IR technologies can improve access to health, education and agricultural productivity and improve the livelihood of our most vulnerable communities. I have further witnessed more companies working with governments to support their digital transformation journeys by empowering the youth and citizens through digital skills development to enable them to become economically active.


What are some of your favourite milestones that you’ve achieved in your career thus far?

I have had the opportunity to serve in some phenomenal Boards and Trusts that align perfectly to my passion of paying it forward. A highlight for me was being nominated as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) chaired by President Ramaphosa which assists the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution.

I was honoured to serve as the Chair of the Policy and Law reform workstream for the work of the Commission.

Another hugely humbling opportunity was to be appointed as a committee member of the BeyGOOD Global Citizen Advisory Council.  As an Advisory Council member, I help to provide advice on specific areas such as business experiences and building of an online brand to the fellowship team. The Global Citizen Fellowship Programme unearths African youth with remarkable potential to develop solutions that address global challenges. 

I have also walked a long and exceptionally rewarding journey with the founders of Girlcode, a non-profit organisation aimed at empowering young girls and women through technology. I served on the entity’s Advisory Board and continue to mentor the NPO.

I am a member of International Women’s Forum South Africa by invitation only association. IWFSA built a pipeline of exceptional women leaders who are change drivers and it’s an awesome honour to work closely with these leaders to galvanise support for economic justice for women. I serve as the Deputy chair of the Young Leaders Connect (YLC) committee birthed by the IWFSA to develop and build the next generation of leaders.


Do you have any recommendations for books on Sustainability?

A book that has had a great impact on providing meaningful insights on sustainability early on in my career and journey on better understanding sustainability was a gift from Prof Mervyn King. The book is called Transient Caretakers: Making Life on Earth Sustainable. I was the Group Executive of a fixed and mobile operator looking after their sustainability portfolio when I was gifted the book. The book in essence addresses burning questions like “What world would you like your children and your children’s children to inherit?”. 

The book challenges readers to take accountability for improving the earth’s sustainability. I believe that this book was way ahead of its time in calling out many of the current issues we are facing as nations and I also see that many of the solutions outlined in the book, if adopted, can begin to contribute to solving some of the sustainability issues we are confronted with globally. 


If you could solve one ESG-related problem in the world, what would it be, and why?

I believe that if implemented with deliberate intention, the goals outlined in South Africa’s National Development plan (NDP 2030) to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030 was initially on the right track. I believe that with collaboration, partnership, and improved support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), specifically Goal Number 4 “Quality Education” is within reach and can be achieved with sufficient will. In the words of former President of South Africa Dr Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We witnessed how hard lockdowns during the pandemic resulted in schools’ closure, negatively impacting children’s learning time. Children from vulnerable communities on the continent without access to connectivity, negatively impacted by school closures means that they are being further left behind. This situation further exacerbates long-standing historical inequities in education which means that a quality life is out of reach for many of these learner’s further spiralling them deeper into the jaws of poverty and inequality.


Do you have any words of inspiration to get the youth more involved with Sustainability efforts?

To echo the words of Professor Klaus Schwab the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum “we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society”. I truly believe that with clear and intentional will and collaboration, anything is possible especially as the youth have the power to act decisively and mobilise others for good. 

I would encourage the youth to become change agents and explore how they can contribute to the 17 SDG goals for a better world 2030 that have the power to end poverty, fight inequality and stop climate change. The voice and actions of the youth are crucial in inspiring change for their communities and leading innovative solutions that improve the health of the planet. 

If provided with the necessary skills, opportunities, and empowerment I know that the youth will hold the government and many stakeholders accountable and inspire new innovative ideas in ensuring a better world for all. 



Charmaine has obtained over 2 decades of experience in the public and private sector combined. She has functional expertise in strategic lobbying with broad range of government stakeholders, enterprise stakeholder analysis and engagement, regulatory affairs, corporate social investment (CSI), strategic analysis, strategic planning, public policy, business planning, internal and external communications, customer relationship management, business process architecture, IT strategy, business process redesign, performance measurement and programme management.

She is an avid reader, humanitarian and a seasoned traveller. Charmaine holds a BA degree in Public Administration and Strategic Communication from UNISA and is also an MBA graduate from the UNISA School of Business Leadership. She is a Board member of Cisco Technology Systems and a Trustee of the Cisco Charitable Trust.



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