Legume species are uniquely suited to enhance soil productivity and provide nutrient-enriched grains and vegetables for limited-resource farmers. Yet substantial barriers to diversification with legumes exist, such as moderate yield potential and establishment costs, indicating the need for long-term engagement and farmer-centered research and extension. This review and in-depth analysis of a Malawian case study illustrates that farmer experimentation and adoption of legumes can be fostered among even the most resource-poor smallholders. Multi-educational activities and participatory research involving farmer research teams was carried out with 80 communities. Over five years more than 3000 farmers tested legumes and gained knowledge of legume contributions to child nutrition and soil productivity. The average area of expansion of legume systems was 862 m2 in 2005; 772 m2 for women and 956 m2 for men indicating a gender dimension to legume adoption. Farmers chose edible legume intercrops such as pigeonpea and groundnut over the mucuna green manure system, particularly women farmers. Interestingly, expansion in area of doubled-up edible legumes (854 m2 in 2005) was practiced by more farmers, but was a smaller area than that of mucuna green manure system (1429 m2). An information gap was discovered around the biological consequences of legume residue management. Education on the soil benefits of improved residue management and participatory methods of knowledge sharing were associated with enhanced labour investment; 72 % of farmers reported burying legume residues in 2005 compared to 15 % in 2000. Households reported feeding significantly more edible legumes to their children compared with control households. Participatory research that incorporated nutritional education fostered discussions within households and communities, the foundation for sustained adoption of legume-diversified systems.