The last twenty years or so have seen a new conjuncture in international trade in tropical agricultural products. That conjuncture combines both changes in the organization of the (Northern) manufacturer and consumer segments of the global commodity chains for those products, and in marketing arrangements in their (Southern) countries of origin, associated with structural adjustment and liberalization. This introductory essay provides the context for the case studies that follow, first by introducing some of the key concepts and analytical issues in the global commodity chain (GCC) approach and other recent relevant literature such as the French ‘convention’ theory. It then sketches an historical framework for examining international trade in tropical agricultural products, with brief illustrations of the specific trajectories of Africa and some African countries within that framework. Finally, it shows how a number of issues are explored in the case studies presented, including how current changes might affect the future prospects of smallholder (‘peasant’) production of tropical export crops.