Written by: David Howell
True problem solving often starts with something far less appealing to most folks – problem posing. Allow me to clarify… Some of our greatest achievements have been made not so much by an individual figuring out how to solve a problem, but rather having the ability, insight, and intelligence to recognize and frame the nature of a problem in the first place.
Many years ago, it was this notion that fueled the beginnings of the Wilmington-based non-profit, Full Belly Project. It started in 2001 on another continent when Full Belly Project founder, Jock Brandis, was visiting a friend in Mali and got into a conversation about shelling peanuts. Brandis had been sent to a small village to repair a water treatment system and noticed that the women in the village spent hours every day, shelling peanuts by hand.
When he asked why they didn’t use a machine to help their output, they more or less said they didn’t know such a device existed and one of the women asked him to find them one. The problem had been posed.
To make a long story short, Brandis decided he would go home to America, find an affordable machine that didn’t require technological advancements such as computerization and electricity and send it back to Mali. The more he looked, however, the more he learned that no such machine existed in the “modern” world, at least not one that could be operated mechanically, by hand and without complex technology.
Brandis, along with friend Wes Perry, and a design recommendation from Dr. Ted Williams at the University of Georgia, decided to invent one. For this, he and the Full Belly Project have been featured on Discovery Channel in Canada and other countries and has taught workshops at MIT on the technology. What they invented was a Universal Nut Sheller – a machine light enough to be hauled around and can load five liters of peanuts at a time.
Here’s how it works. The nut sheller is a layer of two concrete cones, one inside the other, and the space between them (which happens to be just the size of a peanut’s actual “nut”) narrows as a peanut drops. As the machine is cranked, the cones revolve, and the peanuts start to spin faster and faster in a downward spiral until the shell around the nut literary crushes under centrifugal force. What’s even cooler is that the nut itself comes out whole and unscathed, without losing one drop of its precious proteins and nutrients. More importantly, the machine can be assembled by a person who has little to no knowledge of its functional properties and since they’re made of concrete from sets of molds, large numbers of machines can be crafted from one set, and each machine should last about 25 years.
Problem solved? Not exactly… in the sixteen years since beginning, the Full Belly Project now does a lot more than solve or pose output problems, and they’re growing. While the organization continues to touch millions of lives around the globe yearly, they’re also looking inward. They just held their 16th annual fundraiser to great success and rolled out a new mission statement. It reads:
“To design and distribute innovative, sustainable technologies with our local community that empower people all over the world to improve their own lives.”
Full Belly hired Amanda Coulter to be their Executive Director in 2016, whose passion and education is the perfect fit for FBP. “The emphasis is on the ‘local’ aspect. Since the beginning, we’ve focused on our global impact, but haven’t highlighted our local impact through volunteer experience in the workshop and office, interns, our work with local youth groups, sending volunteers abroad, as well as the fact that our equipment helps communities in Wilmington, in North Carolina, and across the U.S. as well,” Coulter says. “We’ve also recently revised our vision to focus not only on the products we engineer but the true power of those products.”
The Full Belly project envisions a world, in which all people are empowered with resources to change their lives through sustainable solutions to improve food security, better their health and increase their income.
“The global citizen component of what we do spotlights our work in educating our local community on global issues and providing pathways for them to make a global impact by volunteering in our Wilmington office and abroad,” Coulter says.
She further explains that the emphasis of the organization is also on how Full Belly not only engineers agricultural devices, but more importantly, devices that drastically improve sanitation and health. In addition to the Universal Nut Sheller (UNS), there are products that can be built by almost anyone, that will improve the quality of life for all. There is the Hand Washing Station, made of readily available, recycled materials that allow access to hand washing anywhere. The Soap Press and the Soap for Hope program, where Local hotels provide the sanitized soap and disadvantaged members of the community are paid to make soap, while local nonprofits distribute it. Then there’s the Rocker Water Pump, a device that draws water from 30 feet and pushes it within a 200-foot radius. Anyone on a farm can stand on the pump and simply shift their weight from side to side to irrigate crops. The device enables farmers to get more food and more income than ever before.
The latest product that will change millions of lives takes us back to where it all began… with the peanuts.
Years ago the African Union declared that aflatoxin has replaced HIV/Aids as the number one health issue for the continent. Few toxins create such a wide array of adverse effects—mental and physical stunting in children, impaired immune response, and liver cancer. A common place for aflatoxin to be found is in agriculture that is not protected and tracked which are the very products so many depend on -namely, corn and nuts.
To help in the fight to answer this agricultural epidemic, FBP developed an Aflatoxin Testing Kit that can be conducted in about twenty minutes on the bed of a truck if need be, and the implementation of a five-step system to aid those who need to control the toxin.
Just as the problem of shelling nuts by hand was posed and finally answered with a device built for the masses, so too will be the test kit. While it is new, it’s clear to anyone familiar with the Full Belly Project that dealing with a toxin won’t be the last need the organization addresses. There will always be problems posed on the world stage when it comes to agriculture and development, and the Full Belly Project will be ready to help create a solution.