Diekola Sulu says diabetes is not a death sentence. As I listened carefully to the man on the other end of the zoom call, I knew I was on a path to unlearning most of all I had known about the dreaded disease.

Sulu is a Nigerian, a healthcare manager and founder of the Self Healthcare Empowerment Initiative (SHEI), a non-profit he established in 2016 to raise awareness of diabetes and how to manage it. Diagnosed with the disease at age 26, Sulu seeks to empower people living with the disease.

Sulu was diagnosed with type two diabetes in 2006. He was young then and worried about it. He had heard of diabetes and was fully aware his mother had it. But he didn’t know it could be hereditary and that his lifestyle at the time could expedite it at an early age. “I wasn’t eating healthy, I was eating junk food. I could take three to four bottles of Coke a day. I just ate at any time of the day, at any time of the night, and went straight to bed,” he says. He maintained a zero-activity level lifestyle and eventually became overweight.

Shocked by his medical results and hesitant to alter his lifestyle, Sulu began to live in denial of his health condition. He kept up with his lifestyle while his “blood sugar kept going up and out of control,” he recounts. He did not know much about the disease; ignorance was costing him his health. Eventually, he took some diabetes education classes at the UK hospital he used at the time. Then, it dawned on him that the disease could be managed with proper information and tools “as long as you read about it and know your daily routines,” he says. This realisation sparked a deep desire to find ways to empower people with the right tools.

Sulu began in-depth research on diabetes. Diabetes UK was quite helpful at the time. Armed with new information, he changed his diet, exercised more, took his medication at the right time, monitored his blood sugar levels, and managed his daily routines efficiently.

Years later, he relocated from the UK to the Middle East to work with the Qatari government to manage and deliver healthcare programs. Sulu helped the State of Qatar develop a National Diabetes programme in 2015. During the period he managed the programme, he discovered that his home country and countries in the Middle East have a common problem of educating people about diabetes. 

“People are still very much not aware of diabetes in Nigeria. They’ve heard about it, but they don’t know what the risk factors are, what the potential complications of developing diabetes are, and what can happen if it’s not detected early,” Sulu explains.

There is not much education out there. The Nigerian government educates people about diabetes, but primarily on world diabetes day, the 14th of November every year. That is not enough. “The government would have done more to educate its people, but the disease hardly gets enough international funding like HIV and malaria,” he notes. Knowledge about diabetes in Nigeria is poor, even among educated people. Also, the country’s public health sector lacks adequate tools and medicine to help diagnose and treat the disease, as seen in a WHO report.

Diekola Sulu and ManageAm Ambassadors
Diekola Sulu and ManageAm Ambassadors

These issues propelled Sulu to launch SHEI. At its establishment, the initiative actively educated people about diabetes. Sulu leveraged his relationships and network of friends in the medical profession who volunteered to support his vision. They launched SHEI with a couple of medical outreach programmes on World Diabetes Day targeted at local government council areas and schools. “But then we realised that we were not reaching as many people as we wanted because we were limited to only the people we could see. So we sat down and thought about a better way, and the best way was to go through tech,” he states.

In July 2018, Diekola Sulu launched the ManageAm App to help people living with diabetes take responsibility for their health, efficiently calculating their progress while making healthy lifestyle decisions. Underground work for the app’s development has been on since 2017 with his team.

Sulu’s work is self-funded and strictly charity. “It’s just out there to educate people and help them understand how to manage their condition,” he says.

The number of people living with diabetes globally, according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), is pegged at 537 million. Africa accounts for 24 million diabetics, with over a 100 per cent rise in the figure to 55 million by 2045. The total number of people living with diabetes in Nigeria grew from 3.05 million in 2011 to 3.6 million in 2021. The figure is likely to reach 4.94 million and 7.98 million in 2030 and 2045, respectively, according to the report.

One of the reasons many Nigerians get into the web of diabetes is fear. “What we discovered is that Nigerians don’t like people talking to them about their health. Nigerians are more afraid of poverty than disease,” Sulu says. Another reason why many fall prey to the disease is the myth that diabetes is hereditary and can only be transmitted from one generation to the next. But according to Sulu, diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and nobody understands its cause. However, there are risk factors that can trigger the condition. Genetics is one of them. “If it’s in your family, there’s a possibility. If you have a sedentary lifestyle with zero activity level, there’s a possibility. If you’re obese or overweight (without physical activity), you may also be at risk of developing diabetes,” he explains. Anyone who faults any of the risk factors can develop the disease.

“ManageAm app aims to reduce the prevalence of diabetes and educate users on healthy living. It promotes self-education as it is easily accessible on smart devices,” Sulu further stated. ManageAm app is FREE and available on the Google play store and the IOS app store.

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