Diekola Sulu says diabetes is not a death sentence. Listening intently to the man on the other end of the zoom call, I knew I was about to unlearn everything I had known about the dreaded disease.
Sulu is a Nigerian, a healthcare director and founder of the Self Healthcare Empowerment Initiative (SHEI), a non-profit organization he started in 2016 to raise awareness about diabetes and how to manage it. Diagnosed with the disease at 26, Sulu seeks to empower people living with the disease.
Sulu was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2006. He was young then and worried about it. He had heard of diabetes and knew full well that his mother suffered from it. But he did not know that it could be hereditary and that his lifestyle at the time could accelerate it from 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 ate any time of the day, any time of the night, and went to bed straight away,” he says. He maintained an activity-free lifestyle and eventually became overweight.
Shocked by his medical results and reluctant to change his lifestyle, Sulu began to live in denial about his condition. He followed his lifestyle as his “blood sugar kept rising and spiraling out of control,” he says. He didn’t know much about the disease; ignorance was costing him his health. Eventually, he attended diabetes education classes at the British hospital he was attending at the time. Then he realized that the disease could be managed with the right information and tools “as long as you read about it and know your daily routines,” he says. This realization sparked a deep desire to find ways to give people the right tools.
Sulu began extensive research on diabetes. Diabetes United Kingdom was very useful at the time. Armed with new information, he changed his diet, exercised more, took his medications at the right time, monitored his blood sugar levels and effectively managed his daily routines.
Years later, he moved from the UK to the Middle East to work with the Qatari government to manage and implement health care programs. Sulu helped the State of Qatar develop a national diabetes program in 2015. During his time managing the program, he discovered that his home country and countries in the Middle East have a problem community for educating people about diabetes.
“People are still unaware of diabetes in Nigeria. They’ve heard about it, but they don’t know what the risk factors are, what the potential complications of diabetes are, and what can happen if it’s not caught early,” says Sulu.
There’s not a lot of education there. The Nigerian government educates people about diabetes, but mainly on World Diabetes Day, November 14 every year. It’s not sufficient. “The government would have done more to educate its people, but the disease barely receives enough international funding like HIV and malaria,” he notes. Knowledge about diabetes in Nigeria is poor even among educated people. In addition, the country’s public health sector lacks adequate tools and drugs to diagnose and treat the disease, as a WHO study shows. report.
These issues prompted Sulu to launch SHEI. During its inception, the initiative actively raised awareness about diabetes. Sulu leveraged his connections and network of friends in the medical profession who volunteered to support his vision. They started SHEI with some medical awareness programs on World Diabetes Day targeting local government council areas and schools. “But then we realized we weren’t reaching as many people as we wanted because we were limited to only the people we could see. So we sat down and thought of a better way, and the best way was to go through technology,” he says.
In July 2018, Diekola Sulu launched the ManageAm app to help people with diabetes take responsibility for their health, efficiently calculating their progress while making healthy lifestyle decisions. Underground work for the development of the application has been underway since 2017 with his team.
Sulu’s work is self-funded and strictly charitable. “It’s just there to educate people and help them understand how to manage their condition,” he says.
The number of people living with diabetes worldwide, according to the The International Diabetes Federation (IDF), is estimated at 537 million. Africa has 24 million diabetics, with this figure increasing by more than 100% to reach 55 million by 2045. The total number of people with diabetes in Nigeria has fallen from 3.05 million in 2011 to 3 .6 million in 2021. This figure is expected to reach 4.94 million and 7.98 million in 2030 and 2045, respectively, according to the report.
One of the reasons many Nigerians enter the diabetes network is fear. “What we have found is that Nigerians don’t like to be told about their health. Nigerians fear poverty more than disease,” says Sulu. Another reason many fall prey to disease is the myth that diabetes is hereditary and can only be passed from one generation to the next. But according to Sulu, diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and no one understands its cause. However, there are risk factors that can trigger the disease. Genetics is one. “If it’s in your family, there’s a possibility. If you have a sedentary lifestyle with zero activity levels, there is a possibility. If you are obese or overweight (without physical activity), you are also at risk of developing diabetes,” he explains. Anyone who fails one of the risk factors can develop the disease.
“The ManageAm app aims to reduce the prevalence of diabetes and educate users on healthy lifestyle. It promotes self-education as it is easily accessible on smart devices,” Sulu added. The ManageAm app is FREE and available on Google Play Store and IOS App Store.