Johannesburg - South Africa needs to diversify its economy and invest in infrastructure to encourage entrepreneurship, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said on Thursday.

“The structure of the South African economy has been constraining. There has been an asymmetry of information,” he said at an event hosted by the South African Black Entrepreneurs' Forum in Johannesburg.

“We have pursued entrepreneurship from false assumptions: we assumed the playing field was level, instead of acknowledging it is not.”

Large-scale investments in infrastructure had the potential to create jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurship, he said.

“The department of public enterprises recognises that demand created by state-owned companies' investment and spend plays a pivotal role in promoting or inhibiting entrepreneurship.”

Transnet and Eskom would include targets for developing their suppliers in their infrastructure build programmes.

Particular attention would be paid to women- and youth-owned enterprises.

“We hadn't had large investments in infrastructure for 30 years, until 2005,” said Gigaba.

“We limited economic opportunities to what was available, instead of creating a broad spectrum of opportunities.”

Gigaba said information on the government's support programmes for entrepreneurs had not been adequately provided, and people had not always known how to access information.

“We've tried an experiment for 18 years. It's not working as well as it should, and clearly we need to change drastically,” he said.

In response, Rapelang Rabana, CEO of technology company Yeigo Communications, said she had not waited for the government.

“We may not have had all the information available. We just used the internet,” she said.

Yeigo was founded by Rabana and her colleagues after they graduated from university. It was one of the first local companies to offer internet-based voice services.

“We never thought we can't build great products,” she said. “We thought those guys (established companies) had the same internet as us.”

While there was no shortage of work to be done on the continent, unemployment was high across the region.

“We need to equip people to go out and find opportunities,” she said.

Schools should teach children to identify a challenge or problem which could be turned into a sustainable business model.

Nigerian entrepreneur Chibuzo Opara said it seemed South Africans tended to sit back and wait for events to happen.

“In Nigeria, we just get up and go.”

It was amazing what you could achieve with a good suit and an expensive car in Lagos.

“It's better to say sorry than to ask for permission,” said Opara, advising the audience to go out and do business.

It was “lovely” that the South African government looked after its citizens.

“But if the incentive to get money is a proposal, then all you're going to have are proposal writers,” he said.

“I think I'm going to start a proposal-writing company.”

Chimene Chetty, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at Wits Business School, agreed.

“Banks give money on technical details, without considering an entrepreneur's creativity,” she said.

American entrepreneur Kelly Ritchie said people needed to change their mindsets.

“There's no shortage of opportunities. There's a shortage of the way we think about them,” he said. - Sapa