With actual results of research collaboration, fruitful interactions among implementing parties, and potential impacts on economic, social and environmental development, the Curcuma Longa Project could be considered an innovative model of partnership between the UK and Vietnam.

'An Integrated Bio-Refinery for High Value Curcuma Longa Production in Vietnam' is an ambitiously long-term project, which has been implemented by a consortium of various UK and Vietnam partners since 2013 and would last until 2018. The five-year project was a joint initiative between UK and Vietnamese scientists following a series of five workshops on natural products research funded by the British Council between 2011 and 2012. Jointly coordinated by the Institute of Chemistry, Vietnam Academy of Science & Technology (VAST) and Newcastle University, the project was aimed to develop an integrated bio-refinery based in Vietnam, initially focused on developing Curcuma longa as an industrial feedstock for cucurmin and other high value natural products.

Joining from the very early stage of the project, the British Council Vietnam provided a total grant of £78,000 for its first two important years of implementation. Its funding has facilitated increasingly close collaboration and enabled more research and expertise exchanges among scientists of the UK and Vietnam. So far the Curcuma Longa Project has involved more than 20 scientific organisations in both countries, brought about 24 work visits and seven workshops and various training seminars in the UK and Vietnam. More importantly, the British Council’s grant was effectively used for evaluation of Curcuma Longa varieties, their cultivation characteristics and economic impacts of bio-refinery, and possible applications of by-products including curcuma oil and residue for the food and health industries. 'The British Council funding is crucial to the project, especially at the early stages. Its sponsorship have  facilitated research exchanges between scientists of the UK and Vietnam, including work visits, training workshops and capacity building', said Dr Duong Ngoc Tu, Head of the Department of Pharmaceutical Biology, Institute of Chemistry, VAST, who has taken a leading role in coordinating the project.

An innovative model of partnership  

The Curcuma Longa project has emerged as an innovative model of collaborative partnership of Vietnam and UK as it has attracted a close collaboration among three parties: research institutions, state organisations and enterprises. In this cooperation, each party has played their defined role in an interactive manner. As such, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) and its affiliations contributed technologies, natural product expertise, initial infrastructure and commercial links. Ten UK bioscience organisations contributed their experience and expertise in plant biotechnology, bio-refining, track record in product development, quality assurance and sustainable agriculture. Local provinces and SMEs ensured raw material resources, technology transfer and commercialization. These effective interactions among the concerned parties have substantially facilitated the project team in achieving its expected results.

Potentially great economic, social and environmental impact

According the project team,the demand for curcumin to be used in health and cosmetics applications, both for Vietnamese market and for export, has significantly increased in recent years with an estimate up to 100 tons per year while local supply capacity falls short of that. In addition, curcuma longa would be potentially planted in large scale in Vietnam given the fact that the estimated areas of 16 million hectares of hill and mountain soils that are suitable to grow Curcuma longaremain unexploited. Their economic efficiency is forecasted 6 to 7 times higher than growing rice as well. Consequently, the project team expect to promote Curcuma longa to be a major crop in Vietnam as an alternative to rice growing, thus generating more income and creating more jobs for a large population of local farmers. Furthermore, the project would enable to create more organic materials of high quality and stable industrial materials for curcumin extraction, manufacturing of functional foods and other high-value products from C.longa to meet domestic and export demands. 

The Curcuma Longa project, strictly following WHO guidelines on good agricultural and collection practices (GACP), would not cause adverse environmental effects and promote sustainable green growth for agriculture and medicinal materials in Vietnam. More importantly, the project would meet Vietnam’s objectives to use science research to drive economic growth. From the UK side, it would support the country’s ambition to be a major innovator in high value chemical production from plants, as set out in the BIS Industrial Biotechnology Roadmap.

Prospects for a sustainable UK-Vietnam cooperation

In 2012, the British Council provided £25,000 to sponsor ten leading scientists from the UK to organise five training workshops on natural products in Vietnam. With this initial sponsorship, a network of VN-UK Scientists on Natural Products Research was established and subsequently upgraded to the VN-UK Excellent Interdisciplinary Centre for Natural Products Research (ICNaP). The Curcuma longa project is the next step for VN-UK ICNaP to scale up the previous training workshops into joint research activities. Through the scientific exchange activities of the Curcuma longa project, a new network on Bio-refinery/Bio-renewable between Vietnam and the UK was created includingBio-refinery Centre, Institute of Food Research (IFR), Norwich Research Park; Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), University of Bath; Green Chemistry of Excellent Centre (GCEC), University of York. An expanded capacity for bio-refining curcuma longa within the project would pave the way for long-term UK-Vietnam joint ventures aimed at developing other biodiversity resources, both native and engineered, to support bio-based economies in both countries.