A project to improve the productivity of protected crops and processing across the South East by using the latest technologies, growing techniques and varieties has been shortlisted by the government, which could see NIAB EMR and partners unlock more than £15 million of funding to establish the area as the UK’s leading region in the sector.

The Growing Kent & Medway project has been awarded £50,000 from the UK Research and Innovation’s Strength in Places Fund to prepare a full business case on how an industry-led research and innovation-focused business cluster would improve the performance of the area’s growers and the whole food supply chain.

NIAB EMR based at East Malling in Kent is working with a world-class consortium of partners including APS Group, Berry Gardens Growers, Thanet Earth Ltd, World Wide Fruit Ltd, Hadlow College, the University of Greenwich, and the University of Kent.

Professor Mario Caccamo, managing director of NIAB EMR, said: “Growing Kent & Medway aims to make this part of the UK, the leading region for the production and processing of high-value foods and plant-based compounds.”

If Growing Kent & Medway is one of the successful final bids to the Strength in Places Fund it will receive between £10 and £50 million to carry out projects that drive substantial economic growth.

The proposed collaboration, which will increase research capacity and industry engagement to drive innovation, commercialisation and novel training programmes in a protected environment, has the backing of the industry and council leaders.

Professor Mario Caccamo added: “As an area we already deliver 40% of high-value horticulture in the UK, but we could do so much more and the opportunity for growth in the sector is significant.

“However, productivity in this region is under-performing those areas where investment in research and business-led collaboration has resulted in significant economic uplift and prosperity. Thanks to novel scientific techniques and new higher-yield varieties, bought about by scientific research, means we can provide even greater support for our industry.

“By driving innovation and productivity throughout the agri-food supply chain, Growing Kent & Medway will support new businesses, create jobs and sustain our communities, some of which are the most deprived areas in England.

“This seed-corn funding reflects the hard work and aspirations of the consortium partners to invest in and grow the regional economy.”

The vision for Growing Kent & Medway aligns with both national and local strategic priorities by supporting an entrepreneurial culture, business start-ups, encouraging inward investment, job creation, skills development, social inclusion, and economic growth across the sector.

Rob James from Thanet Earth Ltd, an innovative producer of salad crops based in east Kent said: “This exciting initiative will allow industry to respond to the significant challenges that currently face horticulture and food production systems, increase food security, the UK’s competitiveness and deliver sustainable economic growth to the region.

“We welcome this opportunity to be part of this progressive and industry-focussed consortium.”

Professor Caccamo concluded: “This inclusive consortium is well placed to build on and develop its network of relationships and contacts across industry, academia and civic leadership.

“The building blocks necessary for this initiative are already in place and the grant funding from the UKRI Strength in Places Fund will be used to catalyse and stimulate further growth and additionality to the sector.”

Pictured: Professor Mario Caccamo