The Future in a Nutshell: The Full Belly Project

BY Dorothy Rankin

“I made this promise and I got stuck with it.” That’s how Wilmington resident Jock Brandis jokingly describes the origins of the Full Belly Project a nonprofit international development organization co-founded in Wilmington by Brandis and dedicated to relieving hunger and creating economic opportunities in developing countries by working on open source appropriate technologies (OSAT). The truth was however that Brandis’ promise was no joke.

It began in 2001 when Brandis a movie technician went to the republic of Mali (the seventh largest country of Africa) to help a friend in the Peace Corps build a solar powered drinking water system. While he was there he noticed the women of the village shelling sun-dried peanuts by hand. Sun-dried peanuts are much harder than roasted peanuts and shelling them was difficult painful work which consumed an inordinate and overwhelming amount of the women’s time.

Jeff Rose executive director of the Full Belly Project explains that more than half a billion people rely on peanuts as their primary source of protein. In the developing world meat is a luxury. “Meat is a rarity in a lot of these places ” Rose explains. “It’s reserved for special occasions.” Peanuts however are everywhere. They’re what keep people alive.

So before he left Mali Brandis promised that he’d find a machine to do the shelling for these women and send it back to them.

He returned to Wilmington Googled “peanut shellers” and discovered that such a machine did not exist. Brandis who had spent his life solving all kinds of filmmaking problems characteristically decided he would invent one. But he soon discovered the problem was greater than he imagined. Advocates of sustainable agriculture had long sought such a machine but its creation remained elusive.

While commercial machines did exist they were large expensive devices more suited to huge agricultural operations than individual farms or cooperatives in developing countries. What was needed Brandis quickly determined was appropriate technology a machine designed for the environment in which it would be used.

He tried a variety of solutions but success evaded him. One continuing problem was that the nut kept breaking. “These people want to shell these peanuts and have the brown skin [remain] intact ” Brandis explains. “The brown skin prevents the oil in the peanut from going rancid.” The skin also keeps the peanut from rotting in the ground when it’s planted as seed.

Brandis consulted a leading authority on nonindustrial peanuts at the University of Georgia who was developing a machine that employed trays and rods that shook back and forth. “That works for a roasted peanut ” Brandis says “but does not work for a sun-dried peanut because the shell is too tough.”

The conversation did provide what turned out to be an invaluable clue however. Though Brandis’ University of Georgia contact’s first response was “forget it ” the second thing he said was “I heard that somewhere in Bulgaria there’s some guy who does something with a funnel.”

hat information led Brandis to design a machine involving a downward funnel and a rotor but though this new system showed promise the peanut refused to cooperate. “It would want to steer itself uphill. I don’t know why but it would ” Brandis says.

So he decided to flip the whole thing upside-down and introduce the peanut from the other end guessing that the nut would then drop down. And it did. “As soon as we did it that way the peanut picked this instant spiral downward and that was it.”

His invention created in 2001 was called the Universal Nut Sheller (UNS) and the necessity for it was indisputable.

As Brandis had observed shelling sun-dried peanuts in developing countries was labor-intensive and physically punishing. Skilled workers usually women could each shell approximately 2 pounds of sun-dried peanuts an hour. In Africa alone women were spending 4 billion (yes billion with a ‘B’) hours per year opening the nuts by hand. With the UNS production would rise to more than 100 pounds an hour. The machines would be invaluable additions to village life but only if they got to where they were needed.

The Full Belly Project was created to do just that. Originally the UNS were distributed by missionaries in what project members now call a “parachute drop.” But the project was unable to follow up on what became of the machines or what impact they had on communities.

The organization now affiliates with existing groups in each country to train people to make and use the shellers. “We look for an organization willing to adopt this technology and to help disperse it and teach people the benefits of it ” Rose says. “But what we also need is for someone to teach them the ins and outs of the machine.” Partnering with other organizations is a practical way for a group with only three paid employees to extend its reach.

Because the project is so small its members rely on personal connections often with former Peace Corps volunteers when deciding where to take the shellers. More funding would allow them to choose target countries according to a list of criteria including the number of people who live on under $1 a day and the percentage of people who are malnourished. But for now knowing people in the host countries allows them to make the most of their limited resources.

Those personal contacts were expanded when Brandis was invited to lecture at MIT’s Development Lab in 2005. The D-Lab studies appropriate technology that the students then introduce into different parts of the world between semesters. The UNS was chosen as that year’s product and was taken to the Philippines Ghana and Zambia. Now the Full Belly Project has expanded to five continents and project volunteers are busy arriving with kits teaching people in the developing communities to build the shellers and leaving behind production businesses.

Kits consist of two sets of fiberglass molds (fabricated by a Hampstead boat builder) that can be used indefinitely and some common metal parts. The pedal-powered machine also uses cement and sand elements readily available anywhere in the world. The cost (not including shipping) of one set of molds and enough parts to make five machines is $600. Full Belly intends for users to create a template from the metal parts so that a continuing supply of UNS can be produced.

The device itself is elegant in its simplicity. It consists of two nesting concrete drums. A handle turns the smaller drum and the nuts are abraded between the concrete surfaces. The design is open source technology meaning it is available to anyone who needs it. Kits can be purchased from the Full Belly Project but users are also welcomed to replicate the machine on their own. The Project only asks that their organization be given credit for the design and that users provide feedback once the machines are distributed.

Given the potential of the UNS to transform the developing world getting the word out has been more difficult than one might expect. “I think the biggest challenge is outreach locally ” Rose says. “We have people in Massachusetts who know about us and we have people in California who know about us but we have people in Wilmington who have never heard of us.”

One of Rose’s jobs then is to increase public awareness. “Everybody in the organization does a lot of outreach trying to make the connections work. It’s building relationships and it just takes a long time.” When Brandis won the Popular Mechanics 2006 Breakthrough Award the Full Belly Project braced for a flood of inquiries that never materialized. “Popular Mechanics has about 2 million readers ” Rose remarks ruefully. “So what does it take? I’m not sure.”

Success often feels tantalizingly close. “You’ve got this technology and it doesn’t cost very much and if – if only – we could get just a little more funding then this technology could be spread to the people who need it ” Rose states. When encouraged to daydream Rose imagines creating an endowment that would free project members to concentrate on the programming aspects of the project. “Then we could be in the field doing what we want to do which is training other people how to make the machines setting up businesses all over the place and letting it spread.”

Those dreams may be attainable. “I think the medium that best illustrates what we do is film ” Rose continues. For the past year a film crew DH Media has been following and filming Jock Brandis. What started out as a movie about one man though has grown into using the Full Belly Project as an example of how technology can radically change the developing world. When the film is complete Rose believes the project’s relative anonymity will end. “I hope when that movie comes out we will be on everybody’s radar screen.”

In fact film is a recurring theme in the project beginning with Brandis’ career in movies a career that often called for innovation. “We’re trained to say ‘I can do anything.’ One thing about movie people is that we’re very good at thinking outside the box.” No matter what’s required Brandis laughs “you say ‘All right no problem. I can do that.’”

And then you do it. Because after all a promise is a promise.