Sucre Blue: Empowering Low-Income Communities to Tackle Diabetes (SocialStory)

I spoke with my friend Erin about her new non-profit, Sucre Blue, for SocialStory

Erin Little was 10 years old at a church camp in rural Missouri when was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. She had no access to hospitals or specialist doctors, and didn’t meet another diabetic until she was almost 21. Her experience is not unlike that of the 60 million diagnosed with diabetes in India.

Diabetes affects 8% of the world population. If India’s diabetic population reaches80 million as projected, it will have the largest diabetes population in the world.

Little founded the non-profit Sucre Blue to provide access to affordable diagnosis and care for low-income patients around the globe with chronic diseases such as diabetes. The organization will provide medicine, supplies, and treatment at low costs, starting with low-cost blood glucose testing to screen for diabetes and heart disease, which share many of the same indicators. Sucre Blue is a French phrase signifying both shock and blue sugar—international symbols for diabetes.

The first pilot will be in a village outside of Bangalore, where Little is training women with no prior clinical experience to screen and provide affordable care for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension to people living under $2 a day. In Karnataka, India, the rates of diabetes are around 15%, but some of the villages Little surveyed outside of Bangalore have rates of up to 30%. Part of the Sucre Blue service is that patients have a peer leader in their community, making self-care more manageable and more affordable, compared to the cost and hassle of a trip to a major city to see a clinic. For local expertise, Sucre Blue has partnered with a sliding-scale diabetes clinic in Bangalore,Jnana Sanjeevini, which provides the rich and poor the same level of access to treatment.

Little has also incorporated a profit model into the pilot by training women to run their own businesses. “For the pilot, we are figuring out how to leverage microfinance so that women can buy their own supplies and reap profits” she said. “I would be so happy–even if we don’t make a profit—to see women in India making money to support their family. Any opportunity to support women is so important.”

Little’s passion for the mission comes from her own experience as a Type 1 diabetic. “I had a very difficult time treating myself and so I was inspired my own experience with lack of medical access and affordable care,” she explained. “I come from a very conservative background and I hid my disease from friends. Anytime you have a disease like this in a conservative society, questions arise from lack of awareness and stigma, such as is my daughter going to get married? Can diabetics have kids? There are the exact same problems and questions in India.”

While struggling to take care of herself and her disease, she began researching diabetes solutions in the US and abroad. “I was shocked and appalled with how big the problem is, especially in India and China.” Students at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, friends of Little’s, originally researched the Sucre Blue model as a concept for a pilot in 2010. She began to explore the model while working in India on a social enterprise fellowship. Little’s previous work experience also includes co-founding a social enterprise and consulting for pharmaceutical companies in the US.

Through her research, Little found that the focus on low-income communities helps an underserved diabetic population. The common assumption is that middle-class Indians with office jobs are the main community affected by diabetes. But in fact, the fastest growing diabetes population in India is in peri-urban areas with average incomes of $2 to $4 a day. These communities are suffering from complications from the disease due to lack of prevention. Whereas a middle-class Indian in an urban area has access to some kind of medical system that allows them to prevent complications and manage the disease, low-income communities don’t have those resources.

The Indian diet, heavy on starches and sugar, is also part of the problem. Little can commiserate with Indians struggling to manage their diet, especially at home. “I feel like my upbringing and diet, especially in the US south, was very similar to that of Indian families, where whatever the mother cooks—whether its chapattis or brownies—the child is expected to eat.”

Despite the clear need for affordable care for chronic diseases in India, launching Sucre Blue hasn’t been easy. “I would definitely say starting an international health organization is very tricky because there are no best practices that have been shared,” Little explained. Despite the challenges, she remains focused on the mission. “There is no pot of gold at end of the rainbow. You really have to be dedicated.”

Learn more about Sucre Blue and get involved here or connect with them on YS Pages.

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