Whether or not investments in African agriculture can generate quality employment at scale, avoid dispossessing local people of their land, promote diversified and sustainable livelihoods, and catalyse more vibrant local economies depends on what farming model is pursued. In this Forum, we build on recent scholarship by discussing the key findings of our recent studies in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. We examined cases of three models of agricultural commercialisation, characterised by different sets of institutional arrangements that link land, labour and capital. The three models are: plantations or estates with on-farm processing; contract farming and outgrower schemes; and medium-scale commercial farming areas. Building on core debates in the critical agrarian studies literature, we identify commercial farming areas and contract farming as producing the most local economic linkages, and plantations/estates as producing more jobs, although these are of low quality and mostly casual. We point to the gender and generational dynamics emerging in the three models, which reflect the changing demand for family and wage labour. Models of agricultural commercialisation do not always deliver what is expected of them in part because local conditions play a critical role in the unfolding outcomes for land relations, labour regimes, livelihoods and local economies.