The integration of smallholders in modern value chains in sub-Saharan Africa is an important pathway for improving income and farmer livelihoods. Connected to demographic shifts, rapid urbanization, and the emergence of a middle class, there is a demand for higher product quality. In order to access these modern markets, smallholders need to enhance the quality of their products. However, factors that determine smallholders’ decision to invest in quality upgrading are not well understood. Using cross-sectional data from the Ethiopian barley sector, we analyse the factors that explain smallholders’ decision to improve quality. We find that socioeconomic, institutional and market factors affect the decision to improve quality. Our study contributes to the understanding of the determinants of quality upgrading at the micro-level of the economics of quality production, and thus of rural development.