HIV prevalence has surpassed 30% in some African countries while peaking at less than 1% in others. The extent to which this variation is driven by biological factors influencing the HIV transmission rate or by variation in sexual network characteristics remains widely debated. Here, we leverage couple serostatus patterns to address this question. HIV prevalence is strongly correlated with couple serostatus patterns across the continent; in particular, high prevalence countries tend to have a lower ratio of serodiscordancy to concordant positivity. To investigate the drivers of this continental pattern, we fit an HIV transmission model to Demographic and Health Survey data from 45,041 cohabiting couples in 25 countries. In doing so, we estimated country-specific HIV transmission rates and sexual network characteristics reflective of pre-couple and extra-couple sexual contact patterns. We found that variation in the transmission rate could parsimoniously explain between-country variation in both couple serostatus patterns and prevalence. In contrast, between-country variation in pre-couple or extra-couple sexual contact rates could not explain the observed patterns. Sensitivity analyses suggest that future work should examine the robustness of this result to between-country variation in how heterogeneous infection risk is within a country, or to assortativity, i.e. the extent to which individuals at higher risk are likely to partner with each other.