Jock Brandis:
Championing Stone Age Technology

Editor’s note: Pat and Steve Taylor are great admirers of their brother-in-law Jock Brandis and ardent supporters of the work and mission of the Full Belly Project. Pat is a retired university lecturer and administrator; Steve is a retired attorney and magistrate. They now live in Philadelphia and Walnut Creek, California.


In the face of a possible nuclear holocaust and the rape of the earth and the obscene poverty of whole peoples… it is time to reconsider what life is really all about.

— Joan Chittister

Joost (Jock) Brender a Brandis, a Dutch native who grew up in Canada and now resides in Wilmington, North Carolina, has created a Universal Nut Sheller, a device called “the holy grail of sustainable agriculture.” With this invention, and the several others that followed, he is considered one of the world’s leading authorities in the emerging field of appropriate technology.

Jock has been interested in technological innovation since his undergraduate service as a cadet in the Canadian Naval ROTC. That fascination continued in his first career as an electrical technician and lighting director for dozens of major motion pictures. One of his oft-repeated stories involves his on-the-set creation of a carnivorous bed from air mattresses, food coloring, and Mr. Bubble foam. His encore career — to which he promises to devote as much time and energy as he did to his work on movie crews — began after the death of his wife from cancer in 1995 and his decision to remain close to home to care for his young children, then 9 and 14.

When asked by a friend for advice in fashioning a solar-powered irrigation system for a village in Mali, he gathered various components and flew to Africa to oversee the installation.

While there, he noticed that the women of the village had bloody fingers from hours spent shelling their main cash crop, peanuts. He promised that he would send them an inexpensive peanut sheller, but when he returned home, he discovered that everything on the market required some sort of electrical power source. The nearest electric service was many miles away from these village women, so Jock invented a device that can be operated by simply turning a crank on the top.

To most Americans, shelling a peanut may seem neither difficult nor meaningful, but in Sub-Saharan Africa, some half a billion people in dozens of countries depend on the peanut as a primary source of protein, livelihood, soil restoration, and rural economies. And the variety of peanut that grows there is so difficult to remove from its shell that the women who spend half of their lives at such labor become progressively crippled.

His creation, which he modestly refers to as “Stone Age technology,” uses $28 worth of materials and can be manufactured on site from a kit assembled by volunteers in his Wilmington, North Carolina, workshop. He quickly interested a group of Peace Corps veterans in forming a nonprofit called Full Belly Project which would distribute the shellers. Meanwhile, he was tweaking the invention so that it would operate not only on peanuts, but also on coffee beans, pistachios, and, perhaps most significantly, jatropha seeds, which can now be used to produce diesel fuel, fertilizer, and a natural insecticide.

As Jock realized the tremendous effect his invention had on people’s lives, he moved on to other simple and inexpensive machines. His gentle manner, old-world charm, and humility won over philanthropic people from many countries and allowed him to attract volunteers and grant money to Full Belly Project. He also has earned the trust of native peoples around the world whom he has trained in the manufacture and operation of his machines. They have become social entrepreneurs and manufacturers in 17 countries.

Mali, Haiti, and the Philippines are among the beneficiaries of his ingenuity, but not the only ones. His latest device was invented to solve a problem he found closer to home. In Rutherford County, North Carolina, small farmers needed a simple way to get water to their farm for irrigation and livestock consumption. These farms are bordered by small creeks — themselves tributaries of larger rivers that feed reservoirs of the larger cities in Central North and South Carolina. The streams, however, are fenced, both to control erosion and to prevent the livestock from fouling the water. To solve the farmers’ problem, Jock ran pipe beneath the fencing and created a gravity-powered water pump to siphon the water from the stream. Again, he used only readily available materials: PVC pipe and rubber gaskets made from used truck tire inner tubes.

The sandy-haired, greying 6-footer with blue eyes that twinkle when he talks about his projects likes to work quickly. He admits that he hears “time’s winged chariot,” and he feels he has much left to do in adapting wind, solar, water, and human power to the problems of the developing world. He also recognized early on the importance of replicability, and so he has created what he calls the “factory in a box.” He and his volunteers ship the designs and instructions for assembly, along with the basic components, to dozens of villages each month to make problem-solving entrepreneurs of the local people.

Allen Armstrong, an engineering professor at M.I.T., notes that Jock’s Universal Nut Sheller is entirely new — new shape, new materials, and a new method of manufacturing. Moreover, his work is beginning to change the way international development is done — away from large corporate centers often far removed from its beneficiaries, and toward smaller, local groups with simple products. These simpler devices use low-cost, locally available materials, and can be operated and maintained with a minimum of training by local people. Jock is currently working with the National Geographic Society and a Philippines philanthropist to come up with a school building that can be made from plastic bottles.

 

Jock is one of those people who has thought deeply about the purpose of life, so deeply and yet so emotionally that, in 2008, he was the recipient of a $100,000 cash award. Bestowed annually to those who are “taking matters into their own hands and fashioning a new vision of the second half of life,” the Purpose Prize arrived just in time for him to keep his home from foreclosure. For most of his life, he has possessed few material goods. In our family, he is often called a modern St. Francis, because, like Francis of Assisi, he trusts that the universe will provide. Once, when he was several months in arrears on his house payment and was literally days from foreclosure, an unknown woman appeared at his door, told him she had seen a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation video about his work, and handed him a check that more than covered his delinquent payments.

Jock is the quintessential optimist, which helps him develop new ideas. Studies have shown that hopefulness and optimism lengthen life. Those who are dynamically engaged, full of plans, working toward meaningful accomplishment are almost guaranteed a longer life span. Jock is also a good listener. Each day, in his workshop, he is surrounded by volunteers from high school students to senior citizens, eager to learn practical things — how to weld steel, mix concrete, and assemble PVC — but also to expose their ideas to Jock’s problem-solving analysis and technological know-how.

His work has touched the lives of a diverse group of people, from African village elders using machines adapted from old bicycles, to Indian farmers using foot-powered water pumps, to M.I.T. graduate students eager to learn how to think outside the box, to former President Jimmy Carter (a man who knows a thing or two about peanuts himself). Several short documentary films have been produced about his work.

He has inspired many to imitate him. Ming Leong, an M.I.T. engineer who spent a summer as a Full Belly Project intern, says, “Just being around Jock has made me feel like, yeah, I have a chance to make a difference too.”