Soil resources in East Africa are being rapidly depleted by erosion, threatening food-, water- and livelihood security in the region. Here we demonstrate how integration of evidence from natural and social sciences has supported community-led change in land management in an agro-pastoral community in northern Tanzania impacted by soil erosion. Drone survey data and geospatial analysis of erosion extent and risk, supported by communication of ‘process’ and ‘structural’ hydrological connectivity, was integrated with local environmental knowledge within participatory community workshops. Rill density data were compared between cultivated plots that had been converted from pastoral land recently and more established plots where slow-forming terrace boundaries were more established. Slope length and connectivity between plots were key factors in development of rill networks. At the two extremes, recently converted land had a rill density ca 14 times greater than equivalent established slow forming terraces. Direction of cultivation, regardless of plot boundary orientation with contours, also enhanced rill development. Evidence of this critical time window of hillslope-scale rill erosion risk during early phases of slow-forming terrace development successfully underpinned and catalysed a community-led tree planting and grass seed sowing programme to mitigate soil erosion by water. This was grounded in an implicit community understanding of the need for effective governance mechanisms at both community and District levels, to enable community-led actions to be implemented effectively. The study demonstrates the wide-reaching impact of integrated and interdisciplinary ‘upslope-downslope’ thinking to tackle global soil erosion challenges.