Perennial grain crops have been proposed as a transformative approach to agriculture. Replacing annual staple crops with perennialized growth types of the same crops could provide environmental services, improve labour efficiency and weather resilience, reduce seed costs and produce livestock fodder or fuelwood production. Yet, the technologies and science for agricultural development in Africa have focused almost exclusively on annuals. In this paper, we review the literature to explore what has been potentially overlooked, including missed opportunities as well as the disadvantages associated with perennial grains. The case studies of pigeon pea and sorghum are considered, as an analogue for perennial grain crops in Africa. We find that a substantial number of farmers persist in ‘perennializing’ pigeon pea systems through ratoon management, and that sorghum ratoons are widely practiced in some regions. In contrast, many crop scientists are not interested in perennial traits or ratoon management, citing the potential of perennials to harbour disease, and modest yield potential. Indeed, an overriding prioritization of high grain yield response to fertilizer, and not including accessory products such as fodder or soil fertility, has led to multipurpose, perennial life forms being overlooked. Agronomists are encouraged to consider a wide range of indicators of performance for a sustainable approach to agriculture, one that includes management for diversity in crop growth habits.