This paper compares and contrasts rural livelihoods in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, with a view to informing rural poverty reduction policies within Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs). Low household incomes in rural areas of all countries are associated with low land and livestock holdings, high reliance on food crop agriculture, and low monetisation of the rural economy. These adverse factors are in some instances made more difficult by land sub-division at inheritance, declining civil security in rural areas, deteriorating access to proper agronomic advice and inputs, and predatory taxation by decentralised district councils. Better off households are distinguished by virtuous spirals of accumulation typically involving diverse livestock ownership, engagement in non-farm self-employment, and diversity of on-farm and non-farm income sources. Lessons for PRSPs centre on the creation of a facilitating, rather than blocking, public sector environment for the multiplication of non-farm enterprises; seeking creative solutions to the spread of technical advice to farmers; and examining critically the necessity for, and impact of, tax revenue collection by district councils on rural incomes and enterprise.