Despite the presence of large numbers of improved maize cultivars, farmers in the Hararghe highlands of eastern Ethiopia persistently grow local cultivars and are not benefiting from the varietal improvement program. By growing local cultivars farmers obtain an average yield of 1.2 t -1 whereas research has released cultivars yielding 5–11 t -1under on-station conditions. Recognizing this and the important role maize is playing in the livelihood system of farmers in eastern Ethiopia; Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) was conducted for three consecutive seasons (1996–1998) in three locations. The objectives of the study were to identify farmers' cultivar selection criteria for future breeding, to enable farmers to assess the performance of improved cultivars under their management, to increase farmers' access to the cultivars of their preference by injecting source seed into the local seed system, and to investigate whether breeding for wide adaptation like for the Hararghe highlands has any drawbacks or not. The study indicated farmers' maize varietal selection criteria together with the differences in selection criteria across locations classified under the same adaptation zone. Though farmers selected some of the many improved cultivars tested, no improved cultivar had all the characteristics, which farmers want in a single cultivar. To be able to combine cultivar selection traits farmers considered cultivar combinations in all locations, but not the single `best' cultivar. Despite the yield advantage of hybrids, farmers selected Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs) because they had more preferred traits. Farmers also preferred to retain their local cultivars despite their lower yield compared to most of the improved cultivars. Both situations confirmed how resource poor farmers' cultivar requirements are much more diverse than yield per se. Gender and social group-driven difference in cultivar preference was also observed. The study revealed the need for proper zoning of the Hararghe highlands as a prerequisite to developing better adapted maize cultivars to the varied agro ecological and socioeconomic niches. As shown in this study, proper zoning, due consideration to farmers' relevant selection traits and wider use of participatory approaches should be adapted to develop cultivars which can gain farmers acceptance.