Crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa need to increase to keep pace with food demands from the burgeoning population. Smallholder farmers play an important role in national food self-sufficiency, yet many live in poverty. Investing in inputs to increase yields is therefore often not viable for them. To investigate how to unlock this paradox, whole-farm experiments can reveal which incentives could increase farm production while also increasing household income. In this study we investigated the impact of providing farmers with a US$ 100 input voucher each season, for five seasons in a row, on maize yields and overall farm-level production in two contrasting locations in terms of population density, Vihiga and Busia, in western Kenya. We compared the value of farmers’ produce with the poverty line and the living income threshold. Crop yields were mainly limited by cash constraints and not by technological constraints as maize yield immediately increased from 16% to 40–50% of the water-limited yield with the provision of the voucher. In Vihiga, at best, one-third of the participating households reached the poverty line. In Busia half of the households reached the poverty line and one-third obtained a living income. This difference between locations was caused by larger farm areas in Busia. Although one third of the households increased the area farmed, mostly by renting land, this was not enough for them to obtain a living income. Our results provide empirical evidence of how a current smallholder farming system could improve its productivity and value of produce upon the introduction of an input voucher. We conclude that increasing yields of the currently most common crops cannot provide a living income for all households and additional institutional changes, such as alternative employment, are required to provide smallholder farmers a way out of poverty.