The government of Rwanda is promoting agricultural intensification focused on the production of a small number of targeted commodities as a central strategy to pursue the joint policy goals of economic growth, food security and livelihood development. The dominant approach to increase the productive capacity of the land, crops and animal resources has been through large-scale land consolidation, soil fertility management, and the intensive use of biotechnology and external inputs. However, evidence has shown that many Rwandan farmers, who employ various strategies and mixed farming practices based on their specific economic, social, and environmental circumstances, face difficulties adopting the singular prescribed approach to become more productive, modern commodity producers. To empirically explore diversity in smallholders’ strategies and their contributions to livelihoods and compatibility with the recent intensification policies, we conducted household surveys and in-depth qualitative interviews in rural and peri-urban zones in Rwamagana district in Eastern Rwanda. Our analysis demonstrates how the dominant approach to intensification and specialisation overlooks the heterogeneity and dynamic nature of smallholder strategies. Moreover, our findings illustrate that a comprehensive understanding of farmer heterogeneity is necessary to explain the critical disjuncture between the government’s vision of modern agriculture and the ability of many smallholders to engage with this agenda and may inform opportunities to adapt policies to better align productivity goals and livelihoods. In doing so, we contribute to debates about the current framing of intensification policy that promotes Green Revolution technologies and emphasise alternative pathways for more inclusive and resilient agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa.