Carbon credit project developers have been experimenting with projects that engage smallholder farmers in land-based carbon sequestration, while providing equitable livelihood benefits for farming communities. However, these projects face challenges in their management complexity and the costs of project development. This brief contributes to an ongoing discourse on ways that these initiatives can be designed to benefit smallholders (Gledhill et al. 2011; Wollenberg et al. 2012) while addressing critics of the smallholder carbon projects who argue that they pose unnecessary risks to farmers and are not worth their cost (Sharma 2012; Stabinsky 2011). We review the institutional arrangements of six agricultural carbon initiatives in Africa to show how management innovations might lead to more successful projects. We draw from these lessons to suggest policy action that would contribute to project effectiveness.