The design phase of the Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP) was completed at a workshop held in Cape Town on 14-16 May 2008. Launched in July 2007, the programme committed the bulk of its first year to a series of activities – brainstormings, country scoping missions and debate around commissioned ‘think pieces’ – which were intended to feed into the necessary decisions about priorities and approaches for the forthcoming four years. This paper was written in April 2008 in preparation for the Cape Town workshop. It was meant to set the scene, structure the agenda of discussion and, in particular, suggest realistic limits for the participants’ expectations. It is addressed to the workshop participants. It can, however, also be read as an essay on the challenges likely to be faced by any consortium research programme starting, as the APPP does, with the ambition of addressing in a coherent way an important but only roughly formulated research hypothesis.