Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the study of supply chain design from the perspective of complex dynamic systems. Unlike extant studies that use formal simulation modelling and associated methodologies rooted in the physical sciences, it adopts a framework rooted in the social sciences, strategic niche management, which provides rich insights into the behavioural aspects of complex innovation dynamics of emerging supply chains. Design/methodology/approach – The use of the framework is illustrated by means of a case study about the development of a new biofuels supply chain in East Africa. Findings – Three key dynamic processes are found to be at the core of new supply chain development: networking, learning and the management of actor expectations. The case analysis suggests the need to actively manage these processes and suggests possible ways of doing so. Research limitations/implications – Generalisability is limited since the research is based on one case study. Additional case studies using the same framework would help to validate and extend the results obtained. Practical implications – Implications for strategic managerial decision making include the need to encourage stakeholder networking and shared learning, and managing their expectations. Originality/value – The paper uses an innovative conceptual framework to examine new supply chain development, which yields new insights into how these processes can be actively managed and supported.