If the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved, African smallholder farmers will need to embrace new technologies such as conservation agriculture (CA) in order to increase both their productivity and sustainability. Yet farmers have been slow to embrace CA and when they have, they are inclined to do so at limited intensities. Current investigations tend to apply binary frameworks that classify all utilizations as ‘adoption’, and do not consider in depth the farmer perspectives and contextual realities that affect farmer decision-making on the intensity of use. We analyze 57 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with farmers who implement CA to understand why they tend to do so at limited intensities and what is required to intensify their CA activities, both for them and others within their communities. While most farmers reported substantial yield benefits from using CA, this was mainly related to input intensification (particularly herbicides) and was limited by constrained financial resources. Overall, the intensity of CA utilization was constrained due to farmer-identified constraints across their physical, financial, human and informational resources. Because of this, stagnation at low intensities of CA utilization was common, reflecting the assumed transformational adoption pathway for CA and the focus on binary adoption, as opposed to modification and the broader utilization process. To overcome this, we propose a more nuanced transitional approach focused on the intensification of four broader principles of CA over time [i.e., (1) strategic tillage, (2) soil protection, (3) crop diversification and (4) input management] as opposed to the strict packaging of CA practices. Such a change in approach will foster increased positive perceptions within the community and allow farmers to locally adapt CA to build their own way toward complete CA utilization and with less need for subsidization.