This paper describes why inter- and trans-disciplinary research, accompanied by innovation platforms, is essential in the context of agricultural development in West Africa. The institutional context in West Africa can become a trap for smallholder farmers and for society at large. Therefore, we argue that an enabling institutional context is necessary to achieve an increase in agricultural production. This will have consequences for setting priorities of agricultural research and the way research should be organized in order to have impact. Within the framework of two consecutive programmes, attempts were made to create such an enabling context. The first programme, focusing on participatory technology development, showed that smallholders can capture only limited benefits from technologies because of their constrained opportunities. The point of departure for the second programme was that institutions explain a large portion of variance in agricultural output and that multistakeholder innovation platforms at local, district, and national levels are needed to create change. The paper concludes with an overview of this special issue, which provides nine case studies of institutional factors that influence smallholder innovation. Each of these case studies identifies and analyses institutional mechanisms at aggregation levels higher than the household, farm, or village.