An £11.4m project is taking shape outside Norwich which aims to fulfil the potential of East Anglia's food and drink economy.

The Broadland Food Innovation Centre is designed to fast-track the growth of food and drink firms across Norfolk and Suffolk, while nurturing supply chain businesses within a supportive "cluster".

A 12-month building project at the Food Enterprise Park (FEP) at Easton is due to be completed in July, with the first tenants expected in August ahead of a formal launch in the autumn.

Eastern Daily Press: Project partners at a 'topping out' ceremony for the Broadland Food Innovation Centre in AprilProject partners at a 'topping out' ceremony for the Broadland Food Innovation Centre in April (Image: Broadland District Council)

When open, it is hoped the centre will improve the proportion of home-grown food processed in the region, and retain more of its value in the local economy.

Although Norfolk is a major agricultural producer, only half of its produce is processed here, leaving the county ranked only fifth in the country for "value added".

The new centre will feature 13 food-grade business incubation units, two test kitchens, a sensory kitchen and meeting rooms.

Eligible businesses can also access bespoke innovation support worth £250,000, along with the chance to join a wider "innovation cluster" aiming to unite the whole supply chain from farms to retailers.

The centre will be a flagship addition to the FEP, which is already home to Condimentum, which mills mustard flour for Colman's, and the world's largest vertical farm being built by Fischer Farms.

Clarke Willis, a director of the Food Enterprise Park, said: "One of the real challenges we have got is that we think we are an agricultural food county. The truth is that we have lost that status.

"When we look at how much food we produce at a farm-gate level and how much we process, the South-West and Scotland as regions have overtaken us. We are fifth in terms of adding value, and we should be first. I am really annoyed by that.

"We are resting on our laurels to a large extent because we haven't captured where markets are going.

"What this innovation centre will do will hopefully skew what the farmers are growing. If farmers are not growing what the market requires then we are going to have a disconnect.

"For example, there is a massive agenda around pulses, but we are not growing enough pulses in this part of the world.

"Our whole structure of agriculture is based around growing wheat to go into the mills to feed pigs and poultry. That is not sustainable."

The centre's funding includes £5.7m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and a £4.14m investment by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership.

The project is being delivered by Broadland District Council, Hethel Innovation, and the University of East Anglia.

Eastern Daily Press: Jordan Sharman, of Hethel Innovation, and Emily Larter, of Broadland and South Norfolk Councils, at the construction site for the new Broadland Food Innovation CentreJordan Sharman, of Hethel Innovation, and Emily Larter, of Broadland and South Norfolk Councils, at the construction site for the new Broadland Food Innovation Centre (Image: Archant)

Jordan Sharman, of Hethel Innovation, is ERDF project manager for the Broadland Food Innovation Centre.

He said the Food Innovation Cluster, managed by the UEA, would be a key part of the project, bringing food and drink producers together with academics, researchers, and government agencies to share knowledge at networking events, conferences and workshops.

"The project has been designed to give the food and drink industry the conditions to grow, both from an infrastructure perspective, but also the knowledge and the skills," he said.

"It will target food and drink processors, however if we can help the agricultural sector to add value to their produce and begin to process it, then we can retain that value in the region.

"The cluster itself is bringing together the food and drink community and we are not just talking about processers, we are talking about agriculture, the retailers, the logistics, the packaging, creative digital - bringing everyone together with the same mission, to enhance the food and drink sector in this region."

He said the goal was for the cluster to involve 500 businesses, initially in Norfolk and Suffolk, and then beyond.

Emily Larter, growth delivery manager for Broadland and South Norfolk Councils, said: "We have had lots of interest from potential tenants, from all types of food and drink businesses.

"We have designed the project in a way that encourages collaboration, and the units are British Retail Consortium standard, subject to getting the certification when the tenants move in, which means tenants can immediately be in a facility that enables them to get their products into supermarkets.

"It enables them to take quite a significant leap in terms of the market they can reach. That could be quite a significant thing for the small businesses we are talking to."