It is widely accepted that Newcastle disease is endemic in most African countries, but little attention has been afforded to establishing the sources and frequency of the introductions of exotic strains. Newcastle disease outbreaks have a high cost in Africa, particularly on rural livelihoods. Genotype VIIh emerged in South‐East Asia and has since caused serious outbreaks in poultry in Malaysia, Indonesia, southern China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Genotype VIIh reached the African continent in 2011, with the first outbreaks reported in Mozambique. Here, we used a combination of phylogenetic evidence, molecular dating and epidemiological reports to trace the origins and spread of subgenotype VIIh Newcastle disease in southern Africa. We determined that the infection spread northwards through Mozambique, and then into the poultry of the north‐eastern provinces of Zimbabwe. From Mozambique, it also reached neighbouring Malawi and Zambia. In Zimbabwe, the disease spread southward towards South Africa and Botswana, causing outbreaks in backyard chickens in early‐to‐mid 2013. In August 2013, the disease entered South Africa's large commercial industry, and the entire country was infected within a year, likely through fomites and the movements of cull chickens. Illegal poultry trading or infected waste from ships and not wild migratory birds was the likely source of the introduction to Mozambique in 2011.