"Mad scientist," "genius inventor," "the Peanut Guy."
The stories swirling about Jock Brandis in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina may sound like myths, but most of them are true. In 2001, the Dutch-Canadian transplant traveled to Mali to work on an irrigation system, but came home haunted by images of the village women's fingers, bloodied from hours of daily peanut shelling.
Peanuts—a staple throughout Western Africa—provide income and protein while preventing malnutrition in an area Save the Children deems "one of the most difficult places in the world to be a mother or a child." Yet groundnuts, like the complex poverty equation, are not so easy to crack.
Utilizing his background as a lifelong tinkerer and former film gaffer, Brandis set about getting to the meat of the issue. After a year of fits and starts in adapting a Bulgarian design to use more readily-available materials, the Universal Nut Sheller was born. The hand-cranked machine gets seven hours worth of work done in 20 minutes, and can be made for about US$28. One sheller serves each village—roughly 5,600 people—meaning more mafé for everyone. One study by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill reported that local incomes rose 20 percent after the sheller was introduced in 20 villages in southeast Uganda where peanuts were the only cash crop.
Brandis chose not to capitalize on the invention's success, refusing to patent it and instead sharing the blueprints online. Always stressing empowerment and autonomy, he and a team of former Peace Corps volunteers formed the non-profit Full Belly Project and started mailing shelling "factories" all over the world with the necessary parts for people to assemble the machines themselves.
In 2006, The Fully Belly Project won an MIT Ideas Award. In 2008, Brandis won the $100,000 Purpose Prize (just in time to save his home from foreclosure) and in 2010 was nominated as a CNN Hero—but not everyone's rejoiced in his efforts, he jokes.
"Once, we were demonstrating a peanut sheller in a village in Kenya. As everyone was going 'oooh, aahhh,' some old, old man with a cane stumbles his way out of the crowd to me and starts hitting me in the ankle with it and yelling at me. I asked what was going on, and they said, 'Oh, he's just saying that for the last 77 years he's been shelling peanuts by hand and he's going to be dead any day now and now you show up with this goddamned peanut sheller. Where the hell were you 50 years ago?'"
Today, he's pleased to see the sheller (and various incarnations) serving in 43 countries. "A variety of people have figured out different ways to make it using local water buckets or whatever and the result is we're sending out fewer and fewer of these 'factories'," he tells me. His invention has proven useful well beyond its beginnings. "It also does coffee, neem, shea, hazelnuts, pecans, and a whole variety of nuts that people send me pictures of, some nuts I've never heard of," he says, adding that lately it's used more for biodiesel, bio-fertilizer and bio insecticide because it can also process jatropha. "The plant has taken a bit of a hit as a biodiesel crop because the prices of oil have dropped," he explains, "but the biggest value is that it is a great bio-insecticide and fertilizer, which is indirectly dealing with food."
Now that "the peanut thing is kind of taking care of itself," Brandis is on to other challenges. He and his team at FBP developed solar-powered water pumps currently irrigating crops in remote areas of Appalachia, and since receiving a request to do something about the mounds of plastic trash in Africa, they've devised a way to turn garbage into plywood-like building material. With the help of corporate sponsor Sealed Air (the makers of bubble-wrap), they're also turning that waste into foot-driven water pumps.
Operating without electricity is game-changing in the field of sustainable agriculture because "In the end, hunger has less to do with food than it has to do with water," says Brandis. "It's unusual to find hungry people in an area with lots of rainfall. Where you get hungry people is where it's dry. If you're going to deal with hunger, you have to deal with water." In true sharing-economy spirit, the plan is to distribute 200 pumps to farmers' cooperatives around the world, along with a person to explain how it works, then disseminate the information via Google docs and videos explaining how to make your own, using found materials.
Brandis and the Full Belly crew have also created a cold-soap press, again partnering with Sealed Air and various organizations to repurpose the mounds of cleaning waste left behind by luxury hotels into new bars of soap. "I remember the Catholic workers who were introducing this program and bringing soap to a bunch of kids, and one of the women having to show a 6-year-old girl how to wash her hands. She had never touched soap in her life. That was one of those 'holy shit moments,'" he shares.
How does he keep from burnout in the face of such humbling reality? "Maybe it's easier for me because I do engineering. If you're doing housing and feeding and teaching and all that, the task is enormous and you just don't even know where to start. With engineering you can just start an idea and it takes off. It's like the fishes and loaves theory, where you start with a few little things and it just goes and all that local ingenuity takes over and all you had to do was throw an idea out there. That's why what I do is kind of exciting, because I didn't have to come up with all the food or hospital beds or shelters. I just come up with the kernel of an idea and the world runs with it."
Viewers can soon follow Brandis and cohorts around the world by watching the upcoming docu-reality series , set to air on KCET Los Angeles if the last $5,000 for editing two more episodes can be raised.
Soon, he's off to Jamaica with water pumps. At the time of this interview, he's trying to make it to his local Fed-Ex in time to drop off a recycled soap factory destined for Jordan … you know, just another day of trying to save the world and stuff.