Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) support livelihoods in rural communities through provision of food, fuel, materials, medicines and income from sales. We estimated the contribution of NTFPs to rural household income in Zambia, and used a two-stage tobit alternative model to identify the factors associated with participation in NTFP markets. NTFPs accounted for 35 per cent of household income for participating households, second only to trading. Human capital variables and the value of assets were found to be significant determinants of both participation in business activities related to NTFPs and the associated household income, and the poor were more dependent on NTFPs than wealthier households. The effect of average rainfall underscores the role that NTFPs play in providing a safety net during periods of low crop yields. Rural development policies should recognize the role played by NTFPs in rural livelihoods and the need to balance welfare improvement and sustainable forest management.