Inventing for Peanuts

Jock Brandis invented a low-cost, people-powered peanut sheller that could raise millions out of poverty around the world. Now, if someone would just come up with the money to distribute it.
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Jock Brandis invented a low-cost, people-powered peanut sheller that could raise millions out of poverty around the world. Now, if someone would just come up with the money to distribute it.

Surrounded by odd-looking contraptions in varying stages of assembly, his hands and clothes spotted by oil and grime and his thinning hair shooting skyward, undeterred by gravity, Jock Brandis looks every bit the mad scientist. After pouring a pound or two of unshelled peanuts into a cone-shaped concrete hopper, he climbs aboard a bicycle seat and puts his feet to work on pedals attached with belts to the hopper and a fan. As the hopper rotates, the shells are separated and blown aside by the fan, and peanuts fall through an opening at its base. "It's quite simple, really," he says.

The "Pedal-Powered Agricultural System" is but one of the no-frills machines Brandis has invented in the nondescript Wilmington, N.C., warehouse that serves as his workshop. The sheller also comes in a motorized version; other works in progress include a corn cracker, a peanut thresher, a water pump and an oil press. They litter the warehouse floor.

At first glance, the utility of the machines seems limited, but Brandis and others are quick to correct that misimpression. In fact, the problem the machines are designed to address has been confounding engineers and agricultural experts for decades: How can subsistence-level farmers in the developing world — who typically have no access to electricity or capital — add value to their crops? If Brandis has his way, his machines will play a role in pulling millions of the world's poorest citizens out of poverty by allowing them to plant and harvest larger crops.

Early this year, for example, farmers in a village in the southern African country of Malawi obtained a Brandis sheller and were able to process more than 30 tons of peanuts in two months, effectively doubling their output over previous years. With profits from the sale of the nuts, the village was able to drill its first potable water well.

"I think Jock Brandis is a genius," says St. Louis pediatrician Pat Wolff. Wolff founded and directs Meds & Food for Kids, a relief agency that works to reduce child malnutrition in Haiti through the production and distribution of Medika Mamba, a fortified peanut butter. Wolff says a peanut sheller Brandis hand-delivered last year has transformed her agency, quadrupling its capacity to produce Medika Mamba. "Without the sheller," Wolff says, "we couldn't be sustainable."

The possibilities are almost limitless; peanuts are the primary protein source for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and Brandis has tweaked his $40 sheller so it also works with a variety of other nuts and seeds. But, so far, only a few thousand of the shellers are in use, and the nonprofit that distributes them is struggling.

Though he has no engineering degree, Brandis is well equipped for providing low-tech solutions to high-powered problems. Beginning with the remote farm in British Columbia where he spent his youth, and where the scarcity of tractor parts and other necessities frequently meant coming up with homemade alternatives in a pinch, he has a lifetime of practical experience in low-cost invention. His early life also tended toward public service.

"I was raised by my parents to believe that my life on this planet had to have some sort of purpose, to help people who needed help," Brandis says. He joined the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps after graduating from college and taught school in Kingston, Jamaica. He later worked briefly for Oxfam, helping fly food to starving Biafrans caught in the Nigerian civil war.

Brandis' improvisational skills were honed during the next phase of his professional life, a 30-year career as a gaffer, camera operator and handyman in the film industry. Working on Grade B movies with microscopic budgets and tight timelines, he often had to fabricate fixes on the fly. In the wilds of Patagonia, for example, Brandis had to build Roman siege machinery from scratch for the otherwise forgettable sci-fi comedy Normanicus. With only encyclopedia line drawings and old cartoons as blueprints and the forest as a lumber source, Brandis and his ersatz crew — a platoon of former Falkland Islands POWs —constructed a field of catapults, battering rams and towers.


An offer to work at the Wilmington film studio of Dino De Laurentiis brought Brandis to North Carolina in the late 1980s. But his work was sidetracked by the long illness and subsequent death of his wife, which left him deeply in debt and without a steady income. In 2001, he was piecing together a meager freelance existence when he received a call from a film-industry acquaintance who had joined the Peace Corps and was working in a village in Mali. The village's water pump had failed, and the friend figured that Brandis could make the necessary repairs.

Within a couple of weeks, he had scraped together the airfare, flown to Mali and overhauled the pump. While in the village, he noticed that women were shelling peanuts by hand, and the process was both time consuming and painful. "The women literally had bleeding hands," he recalls. When he suggested to the head of the agricultural co-op that a machine could do the work more efficiently, she said that such a machine didn't exist in Mali and asked him to bring one back from the U.S.

After a lengthy and futile search for a low-cost peanut sheller, Brandis called Tim Williams, an international peanut expert who heads the Georgia-based Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program. "I told him that he wouldn't find what he was looking for," Williams says. "He was a little bit dashed by that."

On the front porch of his Wilmington home, Brandis experimented with various designs for a peanut sheller, based in part on a rudimentary wooden one Williams had seen in Bulgaria. After almost a year of tinkering, Brandis had his prototype. A plain-looking hunk of molded concrete with a hand crank emerging from its top, the sheller consists of two tapered concrete cones, one of which rotates as the crank is turned. Using the principles of centrifugal force, gravity and friction, the machine grinds the shells against the rough surface of the outer wall, separating them from the nuts; the mass then drops through openings at the bottom.

Though the sheller's concept is simple to the point of being obvious, Brandis added several innovations to previous efforts. His use of cement rather than metal or wood for the core machine parts meant the shellers would be cheap to build almost anywhere, using lightweight molds, and could last indefinitely. "To make parts like these out of metal or plastic would require a factory the size of this building," Brandis observes, his hands extended toward the walls of the warehouse. "But to make them out of cement requires a factory that you can check on an airplane."

Brandis also figured out the precise geometry needed to grind the shells without damaging the inner peanut's fragile skin, which can lead to contamination. "The major advance here is something that's very durable, and it's also very versatile," Williams says. "It puts together bits and pieces of other people's inventions in a unique way."

Brandis still had to transport the machine to Mali, a pricey proposition, and time was short due to an impending peanut harvest. On the verge of despair, Brandis had a chance encounter with another friend from his film days who was producing features for the Discovery Channel and needed an extra documentary. "It was a complete happenstance-serendipity thing," Brandis says.

With the Discovery Channel footing the bill and filming the proceedings, Brandis brought the sheller to the village, where it was an instant hit. After the documentary aired, Brandis was inundated with requests for shellers, and the machine's potential became clear. When he saw the video, Williams says, "I thought, ‘Wow. This is an enormous opportunity.'"

The humble, hardy peanut is one of the world's most important food crops, grown in more than 100 countries and ubiquitous in Africa and Asia. Williams estimates that peanuts are the primary protein source for half a billion people around the world. "Peanuts are huge, though they're not always perceived as being huge," he says.

Most of the world's peanuts are grown by small farmers at the village level and shelled by hand, usually by women and children. Brandis' hand-cranked sheller, which costs just $40 to produce, can increase post-harvest yields by a factor of 50. This, in turn, allows farmers to plant more peanuts and create a surplus that can be sold. Moreover, peanuts replenish nitrogen in depleted soils, a serious issue in developing countries where cash crops such as cotton can leave soils barren after multiple harvests.

The machine's potential does not end with the peanut. Brandis has adapted the sheller to manage a variety of Third World crops, including coffee beans, macadamia and shea nuts, and jatropha, a seed that is becoming increasingly important as a source of biodiesel fuel and fertilizer.

Brandis' sheller and its permutations have garnered considerable attention in engineering circles. In 2006, he won the MIT IDEAS Competition and the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award, and he was profiled on CNN earlier this year. For the past two years he has presented the machine at the MIT-sponsored International Development Design Summit and MIT's D-Lab, which designs appropriate technologies for developing countries. "Jock is one of those quintessential inventors, but he really knows the people that he's designing for," says Amy Smith, who founded and directs the D-Lab and organizes the annual summit.

The passion that Brandis brings to his work is as inspiring as his creativity, says Wolff, the director of Meds & Food for Kids. "Brains you're born with, but not the devotion to a cause greater than yourself, which in Jock's case is making the world a better place," Wolff says. "It's always a breath of fresh air when he's around."

Generating enthusiasm for his shellers was relatively easy for Brandis — all he had to do was show up and start grinding peanuts. Getting the machines into the hands of the people who needed them, however, posed a different challenge. With no experience in international relief work, Brandis turned to a group of former Peace Corps volunteers who lived in Wilmington, and in 2003 they formed a nonprofit, the Full Belly Project. With the help of several benefactors and some small grants, the organization began churning out and distributing shellers and sheller kits to anyone who asked.

To date, about 1,000 Full Belly machines are being used in 17 countries in Africa, Asia and Central America; executive director Jeff Rose estimates that as many as 1,000 more may have been produced from molds distributed in villages around the world. The sheller has been tested in the Philippines, Ghana, Zambia and India, and Brandis recently returned from a trip to Honduras, where Full Belly is working on a jatropha-biodiesel project with a Danish company. "It takes three times as long to shell the jatropha (by hand) as it does to pick it," Brandis says. "We're filling in the missing link."

But Full Belly has floundered financially, and its survival has become a month-to-month proposition. In April, the board of directors halved the already-modest salaries of Brandis and Rose, the nonprofit's only two employees, to keep the organization afloat. To make ends meet, Brandis has taken a part-time job. "I really thought that this was going to be a lot easier than it's been," he says. "I guess I'm just way more optimistic than I should be."

Full Belly's struggles stem in part from its inexperience in a complex and shifting landscape. A project in Uganda consumed a large portion of the organization's initial resources before falling apart; the partners, Brandis says, proved unreliable. Political turmoil in Kenya forced the postponement of a field study there. Some of the people who received machines simply disappeared. "We sent the crow out from Noah's ark," Brandis says, "and he never came back."

Another factor in Full Belly's predicament, Rose says, is that the organization spread itself too thin. Monitoring progress and quantifying how the shellers are functioning in just one location is difficult enough. "It's unrealistic to travel to 17 countries when it's just two guys," he says.

There's another reason for Full Belly's struggles: The international development field is crowded with nongovernmental organizations, and the competition for funds is fierce. Full Belly is too small to qualify for midsized or large grants on its own, and it has tried to partner with large, well-heeled NGOs, but those organizations have their own priorities and projects.

In short, MIT's Amy Smith says, the odds are stacked against any small organization with big ideas, no matter how much sense they make. "If you look in the field, there are not a lot of success stories for the large-scale dissemination of technologies," she says.

The board has retooled Full Belly to focus on just a few projects, with an emphasis on finding in-country entrepreneurs to manufacture and distribute its shelling machines. The Peace Corps is preparing to launch a pilot sheller project in Malawi, and a Dutch businessman has incorporated shellers into his Mali jatropha-biodiesel enterprise.

Walking a financial tightrope doesn't bother Brandis, who has always lived on a shoestring. But he has little tolerance for delay, and he expresses frustration at the endless distractions of having to navigate choppy bureaucratic waters. He also knows that his chronic impatience and off-the-cuff approach make him a less-than-ideal Full Belly front man. "I don't know how to do all that," he scoffs, waving his hands dismissively. "I basically want to be in the next room mixing concrete."

If the board's strategy works, Brandis will be free to do just that. "Nobody wants to put a snuffer on that genius," says board member Jim Nesbit, who started with Full Belly in 2003 building sheller kits as a volunteer. "We want to get to the point where we can say, ‘Jock, you don't have to do another fucking thing but go play in the shop.'"

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