MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Be careful what promises you make. You might hear that from a man named Jock Brandis. His life changed when he promised a group of African women he'd help them find a better way to shell their peanut crop.

Well, that promise turned Brandis into a social entrepreneur, focused on creating technology for poor farmers in the developing world.

We've been profiling social entrepreneurs from time to time, and NPR's Larry Abramson brings us the story of Jock Brandis.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Some men's minds are drawn to puzzles. For Jock Brandis, here's the puzzle today: how to coax the oil from a bunch of peanuts using muscle power and some scraps of metal.

Mr. JOCK BRANDIS (Inventor, Universal Nut Sheller): The oil wants to get out, but it has to now go upstream, right?

Mr. NATHAN HANSEN: Right.

Mr. BRANDIS: Why don't we think about doing something radical and drilling...

ABRAMSON: Brandis is brainstorming with Nathan Hansen, a local high school student who comes by Brandis' workshop after school to tinker.

Last time Brandis was in Africa, he noticed that farmers there buy peanut oil from abroad, even though they have a surplus of homegrown nuts. So when he got back home, he and Nathan went hunting for cheap parts to make a peanut press.

Mr. BRANDIS: Nathan and I enjoyed the wonders of the great American scrap yard, and we found this perfect piece of steel, which fits this screw perfectly. So I think, as your mentor, I'm suggesting to you that you shut this down and we tear this apart.

ABRAMSON: At age 64, Jock Brandis is reveling in his second career. He shuffles about his workshop with the air of an artist whose creations are never quite finished. His machines look like whimsical children's sculptures made from found objects - oil drums and tires. They're scattered about the ramshackle workshop that's home to his nonprofit Full Belly Project in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Brandis wasn't always a do-gooder. His first career was in the sometimes bloody world of B movies.

(Soundbite of movie, "Scanners")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Scanner.

ABRAMSON: Jock Brandis did lighting for movies you might have seen in college and can now find listed under cult classics, like the legendary "Scanners," a thriller about a telekinetic psychopath. Brandis even had a bit part.

(Soundbite of movie, "Scanners")

(Soundbite of screaming)

ABRAMSON: But you have to look quickly. Brandis soon dies a violent film death.

While not very highbrow, low-budget movies taught Jock Brandis a key skill: how to make something out of nothing.

Mr. BRANDIS: You know, the director is saying, all right, next Thursday, we got to do flying saucer flies into the Brooklyn Bridge, and we need to do three takes and blah, blah, blah, and here's your budget. And we say, okay. And you just do it.

ABRAMSON: That's what he did for a living, until he made that famous promise. We travel back in time to 2001. Brandis goes to West Africa on a lark to help a friend building a drinking water project. He notices African women shelling thousands of peanuts by hand. It was slow and painful.

Mr. BRANDIS: And then I promised the local village women that I was going to send them back a peanut sheller. And when I came back to America to buy it, it didn't exist.

ABRAMSON: There were no small-scale peanut shellers. So Jock Brandis used his can-do chutzpah to cook up a gizmo that is powering a quiet agricultural revolution in 17 countries.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ABRAMSON: Shelled peanuts rained down from Brandis' most famous creation, the Universal Nut Sheller. Assistant Nathan Hansen provides the pedal power and Jock Brandis pours in handfuls of peanuts.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. BRANDIS: And here they are completely shelled and cleaned. And this machine can do a ton of peanuts a day quite easily.

ABRAMSON: Brandis says that villagers with their own sheller go from being subsistence farmers dependent on middlemen to independent business people. They can shell as much as they need for market and keep the rest fresh in their shells.

Rick Brandenburg, who teaches at North Carolina State University, has seen incomes and quality of life in these villages improve dramatically.

Professor RICK BRANDENBURG (North Carolina State University): The price can double if you can get them to the market at the right time. So it's just not a matter of time saving and allowing them to do other things with their family or other ways to produce income. It allows them to market their crop when the price is right.

ABRAMSON: Now, Brandis does not give his gadgets away. He sells the sheller design for about $28 apiece. That makes farmers investors in a mini-factory. They get a set of instructions and some molds so they can build their own shellers.

To make sure things work out, Brandis turns to local development people who know the region.

Mr. BRANDIS: This is going to be going out with the Smith family. And the Smiths, they're going to go to Niger. They're going to be using this technology in Niger, and this is waiting for them to pack up.

ABRAMSON: And this is a pump?

Mr. BRANDIS: This is two pumps, or this is a factory for two pumps.

ABRAMSON: Brandis hopes these simple water pumps will be a worthy sequel to his famous nut sheller. They allow farmers to hand pump water over a couple of acres so they can plant a variety of crops all year long.

Jock Brandis opens a big garage door. Behind his workshop lies the graveyard of great ideas, inventions that never made it.

Mr. BRANDIS: And then there's peanut threshers. It's a bunch of bad ideas in peanut threshers. Some turbine windmills around...

ABRAMSON: Among the projects he builds for others, Brandis has found something for himself.

Mr. BRANDIS: I'm having way more fun than you could ever imagine. And the idea of stopping doing this seems completely unthinkable.

ABRAMSON: There are so many problems that can be tackled with an oil drum and a few spare parts.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.