Abstract In most of sub-Saharan Africa, where the agricultural sector experiences dismal performance and is characterized by a gloomy picture, the cotton sub-sector in Côte d’Ivoire is often mentioned as a “success story” given the spectacular rise in the quantity of cotton production and the profile of the crop within the farming system. What are the historical and political antecedents of the development of cotton and the factors responsible for the feat accomplished in the midst of general failures in the same continent? To what extent can cotton be regarded as a “success story” and, what lessons can be drawn for agricultural development strategies based on the Ivorian case study? This paper traces the historical and socio-political background of cotton development in Côte d’Ivoire and identifies key policy and institutional interventions that have influenced the rise of cotton production and its emergence as the dominant crop in the farming systems of the country. Four stages in Ivorian cotton development are identified: planning, take off, crisis and the renaissance phases. The study demonstrates how a combination of good planning, technological advancement and appropriate policy and institutional conditions have contributed significantly to the rise of cotton production and its influence on the agricultural economy of northern Côte d’Ivoire. The study also highlights how the sustainability of agricultural development has been impacted by domestic and international policies and political events over which smallholder farm families have little control, and can at best only respond to. Important questions about cotton development in Côte d'Ivoire are raised that need to be answered before the program can be categorized conclusively as a success story. The study shows that there are no quick fixes to agricultural development in the sub-region. Rather, good planning and putting the necessary building blocks in place are important prerequisites. It is recommended that agricultural development efforts in the continent take cognizance of the complexity of the sector and address the inter-relationships that exist among the technical, policy, market and institutional factors that combine individually and collectively to influence African agriculture.