The political and institutional dimensions of policy formulation and implementation are key determinants of the feasibility of technical policy prescriptions. This paper explores how policy narratives on the role of the state in agriculture have influenced and defined the role of ministries of agriculture in Africa. Three current narratives are identified within academic and donor circles – ‘free-market’, ‘coordinated-market’ and ‘embedded-market’. Each has distinct implications for what ministries of agriculture are expected to do. Realities on the ground are, however, less amenable to neat conceptual categorisations. Although often buying into the free-market narrative at a rhetorical level, substantial resistance has been offered to fundamental reform of the institutional structures and working practices of ministries of agriculture. The net result is often a situation where ministries of agriculture are neither capable of delivering on conventional roles, nor have the agility or responsiveness to act as a new-style regulator and facilitator. There is, however, scope for ministries of agriculture to reinvent themselves as a relevant developmental player, and particularly to respond to development coordination failures in a setting increasingly populated by divergent interests which are not necessarily supportive of the poor.