Newcastle disease (ND) is one of the most important and widespread avian pests. In Africa, backyard poultry production systems are an important source of protein and cash for poor rural livelihoods. ND mortality in these production systems is important and seriously disrupts benefits derived from it. This study undertook an African continental approach of ND epidemiology in backyard poultry. After a systematic literature review of studies published from 1980 to 2009, a meta-analysis of spatio-temporal patterns of serological prevalence and outbreak occurrence was performed. Average ND serological prevalence was estimated at 0·67 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0·58–0·75] in regions characterized by humid ecosystems, high human and poultry densities and low altitudes; 0·36 (95% CI 0·30–0·41) in dry ecosystems at intermediate altitude where human and poultry densities are low and 0·27 (95% CI 0·19–0·38) in mountain ecosystems where human and poultry densities are intermediate. In terms of seasonality, ND outbreaks occur mostly during the dry seasons in Africa, when environmental conditions are likely to be harshest for backyard poultry. In addition, a phylogeographical analysis revealed the regionalization of ND virus strains, their potential to evolve towards a higher pathogenicity from the local viral pool and suggests a risk for vaccine strains to provide new wild strains. These results present for the first time a continent-wide approach to ND epidemiology in Africa. More emphasis is needed for ND management and control in rural African poultry production systems.