It's hard to avoid using enormous numbers when discussing trade. And the numbers don’t come much bigger than for the Commonwealth.
A diverse grouping of 52 states, spanning Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific, the Commonwealth is home to some 2.3bn people and has a GDP projected to reach $14 trillion by the end of the decade.
It contains some of the fastest-growing countries in the world, and trade between Commonwealth member states is expected to rise strongly in the coming years, from over $680bn today to surpass $1 trillion by 2020.
And yet the Commonwealth opportunity for Britain’s smaller exporters is far more human than these numbers imply. “The Commonwealth needn’t mean anything. And yet it means a lot to people because of the historic relationship,” says Oliver Everett, chief executive of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC). “That goodwill encourages people to think of each other as trusted partners.”
Everett says the Commonwealth factor makes it 19 per cent cheaper to operate across the area. “That’s because of the English language, often common legal systems, and mostly common financial systems.” Not all member states are risk-free, of course, with the likes of Australia a safer place to do business than some of the West African countries, for example.
But familial links between people living in these countries also serves to facilitate trade. “There’s good evidence that British entrepreneurs are going back to what they regard as their mother countries in order to do business. Very often because of the historical trading relationships, there’s long established trade routes that can be made use of.”
There is also a plethora of organisations dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes trade with other Commonwealth nations. On top of country-specific groups like the UK India Business Council, Everett’s CWEIC has a remit “from the 52 heads of government to get trade and investment going around the Commonwealth”.
One of the programmes CWEIC runs is CommonwealthFirst. “It’s designed to take 100 of the best UK SMEs and to get them exporting throughout the Commonwealth,” says Everett. A three-year programme, it involves tailored trade missions to high-growth markets like Malaysia and Nigeria, training and mentoring, and access to networks and introductions. Applications for the second cohort are open until this Sunday.
The CWEIC also runs the Commonwealth Trade Initiative. A platform that links up businesses across the 52 nations, the purpose is to support firms to find and develop export opportunities. It also gives access to services to help businesses develop their export capabilities. Its asset and business finance solution partner LDF, for example, provides financing so that firms can purchase the assets or fund the business development needed to successfully export, or simply to cover essential business spending associated with selling overseas.
In general, Everett says, successfully exporting to Commonwealth countries involves much the same as successfully exporting to any nation. “You’ve got to find a good partner on the ground, the right person to manage the relationship. It does involve some time and effort, and there is sometimes a reluctance among businesses to put the work in. But there are good examples of where it has been worthwhile.”
Companies likely to do particularly well include those that can leverage Britain’s reputation for selling high-quality products. But any UK firm that can add value to what local companies are doing, particularly in terms of capital and skills, will find a ready audience. “There is a need for UK expertise, and you don’t have to be a large company to provide that.”
“The real reward for SMEs will be investing in long-term relationships, and bringing your skills and capital,” says Everett. “It’s not just a question of selling your goods, but building a lasting partnership.”