How A Promise Led To Innovation: A Peanut Sheller Nearly 10 years ago, Jock Brandis promised women from Mali he'd help them find a better way to shell their peanut crop than one by one with their hands. That promise led him to create a gizmo that is now powering a quiet agricultural revolution in 17 countries.
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How A Promise Led To Innovation: A Peanut Sheller

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How A Promise Led To Innovation: A Peanut Sheller

How A Promise Led To Innovation: A Peanut Sheller

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.

BLOCK: The oil wants to get out, but it has to now go upstream, right?

BLOCK: Right.

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

ABRAMSON: 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.

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


U: (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.



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

W: how to make something out of nothing.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.


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.


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

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

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

BLOCK: 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?

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

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

BLOCK: 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.

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

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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