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Smallholder value chains as complex adaptive systems: a conceptual framework



Smallholder value chains are dynamic, changing over time in sudden, unpredictable ways as they adapt to shocks. Understanding these dynamics and adaptation is essential for these chains to remain competitive in turbulent markets. Many guides to value chain development, though they focus welcome attention on snapshots of current structure and performance, pay limited attention to the dynamic forces affecting these chains or to adaptation. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


This paper develops an expanded conceptual framework to understand value chain performance based on the theory of complex adaptive systems. The framework combines seven common properties of complex systems: time, uncertainty, sensitivity to initial conditions, endogenous shocks, sudden change, interacting agents and adaptation.


The authors outline how the framework can be used to ask new research questions and analyze case studies in order to improve our understanding of the development of smallholder value chains and their capacity for adaptation.

Research limitations/implications

The framework highlights the need for greater attention to value chain dynamics.


The framework offers a new perspective on the dynamics of smallholder value chains.