Luthuli, who is known as the go-to academic for Regional (and Local) Economic Development and more specifically, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), aerotropolis or industrial development-related research projects at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) simply describes an “aerotropolis” as “a city that is built around an airport to stimulate economic growth and generate revenue”.

However, it’s her unique understanding of this area that saw her being part of a benchmarking tour of aerotropolis and aviation-related institutes in Dubai and the Netherlands in 2016. It earned her a nomination to represent UKZN in the South Africa-Sweden Forum in the area of “urbanisation and cities in the 21st century”.

This is a three-year project that will run from 2017-2020, bringing together researchers, students, industries, funding agencies and other societal actors from Sweden and South Africa to discuss global challenges and their impact on society.

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Luthuli has also made her mark as a young leader and was featured in the DESTINY magazine’s Power of 40 list of 40 women under the age of 40 doing extraordinary things in various industries in 2017, as well as the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans list of under-35s blazing trails in their respective fields. She also took home a KZN Young Achiever Award in the Academic category in 2018.

“The aerotropolis is currently a key strategic investment and a major infrastructure project of the government of South Africa aimed at driving industrial and regional economic development. Conducting research around this area is useful for us to find better ways of setting up these kinds of industrial complexes within the African context,” said Luthuli.

Supervised by Dr Jennifer Houghton, her study, entitled A Conceptualisation and Enactment of Regional Economic Development Through the Analysis of the Durban Aerotropolis in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, analysed how Regional Economic Development is conceptualised and enacted. As such, her doctoral thesis provides an account of how, in the context of the Durban Aerotropolis, the region is conceptualised as an inherent notion in the Regional Economic Development approach.

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“My study explores the enactment of Regional Economic Development by examining the governance mechanisms of the aerotropolis project and interrogating the dynamics of agglomeration and clustering of businesses through the aerotropolis. Furthermore, regional marketing is considered as a critical component of the enactment of Regional Economic Development by uncovering the various efforts that have been coordinated by stakeholders to ensure that the Durban Aerotropolis is better positioned to attract foreign and local investment,” explained Luthuli.

Looking to the future, Luthuli is looking forward to exploring her specialist path and more importantly, changing the mindset that aviation and planning for airport cities is a man’s field, by proving that understanding the economics behind aviation should be a woman’s job.

“At this point, I am really torn between staying in academia and seeking opportunities in industry. It would be amazing to work for either the Department of Economic Development or Department of Trade and Investment at a national level, more so with regards to my specialist knowledge in the area of economic development, cluster and agglomeration economics and industrial policy, but I have my sights set on Acsa, the Dube Trade Port or Ekurhuleni for my expertise within the airport metropolis space or what is popularly known as aerotropolis. Women are, in fact, needed in this space and the world is currently my oyster in all kinds of ways,” said Luthuli.