Populations of African descent are at the forefront of the worldwide epidemic of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). The burden of T2DM is amplified by diagnosis after preventable complications of the disease have occurred. Earlier detection would result in a reduction in undiagnosed T2DM, more accurate statistics, more informed resource allocation and better health. An underappreciated factor contributing to undiagnosed T2DM in populations of African descent is that screening tests for hyperglycaemia, specifically, fasting plasma glucose and HbA1c, perform sub-optimally in these populations. To offset this problem, combining tests or adding glycated albumin (a nonfasting marker of glycaemia), might be the way forward. However, differences in diet, exercise, BMI, environment, gene-environment interactions and the prevalence of sickle cell trait mean that neither diagnostic tests nor interventions will be uniformly effective in individuals of African, Caribbean or African-American descent. Among these three populations of African descent, intensive lifestyle interventions have been reported in only the African-American population, in which they have been found to provide effective primary prevention of T2DM but not secondary prevention. Owing to a lack of health literacy and poor glycaemic control in Africa and the Caribbean, customized lifestyle interventions might achieve both secondary and primary prevention. Overall, diagnosis and prevention of T2DM requires innovative strategies that are sensitive to the diversity that exists within populations of African descent.