This first instalment of a two-part review essay on current work in commodity studies considers, at some length, an important and distinctive text by Peter Gibbon and Stefano Ponte. It draws on a unique set of case studies of African export commodities, using (and developing) the framework of Global Value Chain (GVC) theory, of American provenance, together with elements of the mostly French literature on quality conventions. Gibbon and Ponte also seek to incorporate key mechanisms of globalization and international trade, and their forms of regulation, and to evaluate the effects of the book's analysis and argument for prospects of improving the performance of African agricultural exports in particular. Here we provide a detailed exposition, discussion, and assessment of the book. We conclude that, for all its intellectual virtues, there are some central tensions in its argument that reflect the lacunae and limitations of the kind of economic sociology the authors employ – which, contentiously, they designate as ‘historical political economy’.