December 12, 2006

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Build an open source, universal nut sheller (for peanuts)

by Rebecca Fernandez


A dietary staple for millions around the world, peanuts have long required painstaking hand-shelling that has limited their potential as a cash crop for farmers in developing nations. But the Full Belly Project has made peanut shelling as easy as riding a bike by bringing their pedal-powered peanut sheller to tiny villages in remote corners of the world.

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The universal nut sheller, in action.
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"They were processing peanuts by beating a sack with a stick," says Roey Rosenblith, director of partnerships and strategic planning for the Full Belly Project. "It's very hard for Westerners to conceptualize life when you wake up at 4:00 in the morning and your chores of the day are beating a bag with a stick and pounding grain until you make flour."

But for a half-billion people worldwide, peanut shelling is a task that consumes two months of every year. Methods for shelling the nuts vary as Rosenblith explains, "In Africa you will see seven-year-old kids with these big pieces of wood. They will make games out of it. Like one person will pick it up, throw it down. They'll just do that for hours."

It's hard work that usually falls on the shoulders of women and children. Director of engineering for the Full Belly Project, Jock Brandis first observed this labor while repairing a water pump in Mali. Brandis had no formal engineering training. His college major was anthropology. But his friend, who was working in Mali with the Peace Corps, knew he could fix anything and wrote to ask for his help.

A better mousetrap

Haunted by the images of the gnarled, scarred fingers of the women in Mali, Brandis began working in his backyard to create a simple machine that would shell peanuts. He developed a machine that could be produced out of inexpensive and even free parts, readily available in the third world. Oil barrels. Sand bags. Concrete.

Rosenblith joined Brandis and coined their work "open source appropriate technology." Appropriate technology, Rosenblith says, is "starting from nothing or starting with what people have and basically reaching them where they are, rather than telling them what they need to do."

"A lot of international development work occurs from four-star hotels in the capital cities of the countries that economists are working in," Rosenblith says. "They need to step out of their four-star hotels, go into the villages, and ask simpler questions."

Simple answers

Peanuts, as it turns out, are a valuable crop in several ways. They improve the soil they grow in, allowing farmers to grow cash crops like cotton, in addition to other edibles like corn or grains. And the pedal-powered machine is modular, with detachable components that allow farmers to winnow other crops. The idea is that you can use one machine in a small village to shell peanuts, winnow sorghum and millet, and crack corn.

Brandis inadvertently discovered that peanuts were valuable to another group of people: cement companies. "We went to these cement companies and we were really shooting for a PR angle, like they were going to help feed the world with cement. Save paradise, not pave paradise," Rosenblith explains, highlighting the ongoing problem of pollution caused by these companies. But philanthropy didn't catch the cement companies attention. Peanut shells did.

Holcim, one of the largest cement companies in the world, had a surprising need for peanut shells. Burning peanut shells in their cement kilns cut down their carbon dioxide pollution, freeing up carbon credits. And carbon credits, in the open market, equal cash.

Today, Holcim sponsors peanut shellers in 30 villages, allowing farmers to shell their peanuts and sell the shells back to Holcim for an additional profit. Holcim pays them 50% of what they were already receiving for the peanuts alone, creating a biomass commodity market.

Small investments yield large returns

Brandis' peanut sheller has other benefits to the farmers who use it. Commercial peanut shellers break a third of the nuts they shell, leaving small farmers with only 60% of their crop. Then, of the remaining peanuts, an additional third is retained by the peanut shelling companies, as payment.

You have to have facilities in the field to furnish long-term commitment.

With the Full Belly Project machine, simple adjustments are made to the screen so small peanuts drop through, unbroken and unshelled. When the larger nuts are shelled, the machine is adjusted and the smaller nuts are dropped in and shelled. Very few peanuts are broken or wasted. And the machine is 40 times faster than hand-shelling.

Because of their simplicity, the machines can be constructed and repaired locally. "Unless someone knows how to adjust them and fix them, if something happens to the machine, it's no good. And that's what a lot of appropriate technology folks are finding out. You have to have facilities in the field to furnish long-term commitment."

In 2006, the simplicity and $75 price tag motivated the folks at Popular Mechanics to award Brandis with one of their coveted Breakthrough Awards.

But the Full Belly Project's goal isn't to win awards. It's to build small industries around their machines. "Ideally, if Kenya wants peanut shellers, we will say, 'Go to Uganda and order a shipment from them,' and they will make them there. Or if someone wants a peanut sheller in Panama, they will go to Guatemala and have one made locally," Rosenblith explains.

Collaboration and open source

The Full Belly Project is interested in licensing their machines under some form of the Creative Commons license. Currently, the plans are available online, but Rosenblith acknowledges some difficulties with the public domain. "We're funded by grants and donations, and if someone makes it in Nigeria and we don't get any attribution, then it doesn't help us when World Bank sees the machine and wants to contribute to making more. So we're still trying to figure out how to meet the goals of open sourcing the project, making it freely available, and making sure it's still traceable."

Rosenblith believes strongly in idea sharing. Technology, he says, "is not anything by itself. It comes about because there is a connection to something else. Like Darwin said, we know what we know because we stand on the shoulders of giants."

Having solved the peanut problem, the Full Belly Project is now tackling other impediments to productivity in crop processing. What began as a hand-cranked peanut sheller was given leg power, and now has become a full-fledged pedal-powered agricultural machine. Other nuts, including pecans and hazelnuts, have been successfully shelled, but macadamia nuts cracked the concrete bowl. Corn can be processed, but other grains have presented new problems to be solved. And Brandis has his sights set on another open source appropriate technology project: a portable, affordable cotton gin.

Update

After this article was published, we received more information and a few clarifications from Roey Rosenblith.

Hello all, Thank you for the wonderful article on the Full Belly Project. I've passed along to our board and volunteers who are quite excited. My hope is that this article might broaden our appeal to the open source community, right now we're looking at Lawrence Lessig and Jamie Love's Creative Commons Developing Nations License.

Its a great idea and hopefully will serve us well in our efforts. Also, a minor clarification:

The quote: "In Africa you will see seven-year-old kids with these big pieces of wood. They will make games out of it. Like one person will pick it up, throw it down. They'll just do that for hours." Was actually in reference to cracking corn and grain grinding. Take a look at this video.

Last week we got seven pounds of macadamia nuts in the mail and two days later Jock invented a machine to shell them. No small feet considering that you usually need a vice.

One last thing. People who are interested in the Fully Belly Project can get more information from this video.

Roey Rosenblith
Director of Outreach
Full Belly Project
www.fullbellyproject.org
Wilmington, NC