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Some 18 Commonwealth member states are to be offered reduced-tariff access for their food exports to the UK, Boris Johnson said today, ahead of a visit to the group’s heads of government meeting in Rwanda.

According to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office, the UK’s proposed Developing Countries Trading Scheme would “reduce import tariffs on foodstuffs, clothing and other items by over £750m per year”, a move it claimed would “help bring down prices for UK consumers”.

Further details of the plan were not announced by the PMO, but the DCTS had been earlier branded a replacement for market access to the UK previously offered under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), which came as part of the UK’s membership of the European Union. The GSP offers “partial or full removal of customs duties on two-thirds of tariff lines” affecting the exports to the bloc of 65 so-called developing countries, according to the European Commission.

Describing the Commonwealth as a “unique union of nations”, Johnson said it was an “unappreciated fact” that among the member states, “trade and commerce ties criss-cross continents, greased by shared language and legal systems”.

The PMO said the legacy of British law and English language use across the Commonwealth meant ”trading costs” among members were a fifth lower than average.

Most former British colonies are members of the group, which was established in 1949, with notable exceptions being the US and Ireland. Two members, Mozambique and Rwanda, were Portuguese and Belgian colonies respectively.

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The Commonwealth Secretariat put the combined 2021 gross domestic product of its 54 member states at $13.1 trillion. A House of Commons report published in December said UK exports to the other 53 members were worth £56.3bn in 2020, with imports amounting to £48.2bn. The numbers suggested the UK’s trade with the Commonwealth was around the same as with Germany, or around 9% of total trade.

Three-quarters of that UK-Commonwealth trade was with five countries – Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and Singapore, the wealthiest member state in terms of GDP per capita. Of that quintet, Australia was the biggest export destination, while India was the UK’s biggest source of Commonwealth imports.

Citing official data, the Food & Drink Federation last month said British food and drink exports to Canada rose by more than a quarter in the first three months of 2022, compared with before the coronavirus pandemic, while those to India were up by around a fifth.

Since leaving the EU, the UK has agreed free trade deals with two Commonwealth members, Australia and New Zealand, and has started talks with India and Canada.

In a separate statement ahead of the Commonwealth meeting, the Department for International Trade said a “thriving trade and investment relationship between the UK and Africa presents huge opportunities across a variety of sectors including tech, transport, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure and agri-tech”.

Estimated by the department to be around $2.4 trillion, Africa’s GDP amounts to substantially less than that of either of two biggest Commonwealth economies, India and the UK, which according to the latest International Monetary Fund estimates have similar GDPs of around $3.3 trillion each.

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Johnson said separately ahead of his trip that he aimed to push back against “condescending attitudes to Rwanda”, after criticism of his administration’s plans to send asylum seekers to the African nation, which were halted last week by the European Court of Human Rights.

After arriving in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on Thursday, Johnson met President Paul Kagame, who he ”congratulated on Rwanda’s extraordinary social and economic development in just a few decades”, according to another PMO statement.

As part of the Commonwealth summit, Johnson was to meet on Friday with the Prince of Wales, who, according to British newspaper reports has labelled the deportation plans as “appalling”.

Devastated by the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people, Rwanda has more recently been touted as one of Africa’s economic success stories, with GDP growth averaging 7.2% a year over the decade up to 2019, according to World Bank statistics – prompting some admirers to suggest the central African nation could be a nascent “Singapore in Africa”.

But the government in Kigali has also been criticised for authoritarianism and for allegedly murdering political dissidents, as well as for military interventions in giant neighbour the Democratic Republic of Congo – accusations Kagame has dismissed as coming from countries that ignored both the Rwanda genocide and the decades-old DRC wars, which by some estimates have killed around six million people.