Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's Never Too Late To Make a Difference - Will You?

In the mid-1980's I had the fortune to meet John Fogg and Eliza Bird, both attorneys, a married couple. Eliza was in private practice. John was working for the California State Insurance Commissioner's office. In 1998 they attended a public seminar offering of mine which included The Samurai Game® ( and loved the experience and learning. Shortly thereafter a box appeared on my doorstep. In it a real (not decorative) samurai sword - old, pitted and minus its handle. Beneath where the tsuba (hand guard) would have been was the traditionally steel base etched in kanji with the sword maker's name and a statement attesting, "Completed on a good day 1816". To this day their gift has occupied a place of honor in my home.

John and Eliza retired and ventured off to travel around the world. Now and then email would arrive ...."Fogg/Bird-grams" I call them .... each, like the sword, numbered and dated, bringing tales of high adventure and humor and learning as they cut their way across continents. Midst their journeys they kept residences in northern California and North Carolina.
The summer of 2006 began my two-year transition from brown to black belt rank in aikido, a Japanese martial art To symbolically honor the transition I began polishing the blade, but determined to leave pits and blemishes in place. This as a reminder that any journey in life is a process of refinement, sharpening and creating new luster, as well as something which sincerely acknowledges ownership of past blemishes and scars .... things not pretty, yet honestly part of life. By December 2007 the blade, still pitted and scared, was beautiful. The black belt exam was set for five months later and by then I'd be 58.

In the second week of May 2008 a "Fogg/Bird-gram" arrived. Reflecting on their gift I sent John and Eliza an email saying how much the sword meant to me, including the cleaning process and the soul searching my upcoming test had created. The next day a reply arrived from them giving notice they were coming to watch. May 24th was a beautiful day for a test at Two Rock Aikido dojo ( especially with them present. We didn't have time to talk and agreed to dine a few days later at my home and catch up on years gone by.

A week later. The three of us sat down in my dining room table to enjoy my one-and-only-I-can-cook-this-wait-till-you-taste-it-bacon covered-broiled salmon-asparagus-meal. "Tell us about your kids," they asked. I did. "Tell us about where you've been traveling." I did. "What's become of old so and so?" I answered. "And the old red Ford truck?", they inquired. "It's right outside the front door; you walked by it on the way in", I replied.

Then it was my turn, "What have you been up to?", I asked and that's about as far as I got. They looked at each other. They grinned and laughed .... and for the next two hours out came a story almost unbelievable. I listened to a flow of words and my imagination went wild as though I was watching some kind of Indiana Jones film staring two retired lawyers who had touched and returned to what matters in their life. The theme: it's never too late to take on something important, something big, something .... impossible .... especially if it's of service to others.

But as I strained to listen my brain jolted and grasped pictures and sound bytes. Here's about the way it went:

John: "I had a dream to make a for real difference putting dent in world starvation while I'm still alive. " --- "I remembered I died in that Game we played with you. That was the best part of it because I realized that in reality I was still alive so I could still do something about my dream even if I didn't know exactly what it was I was going to do - so might as well take a step and see what happens."

Eliza (giggling): "Renting, no borrowing, ahhhh ... hmmm, cars ... we'll whatever - we didn't steal 'em .... anyway they're usually mostly old and beat up." --- "We'll truth is we drive what ever it takes." --- "When we are in Africa it's kind of like ....-" "Then there's the times in South America when ...." --- "The maps are often old. Well actually some times there's no maps." -- "Strange directions, too." --- "No air conditioning. No gas. Flat tires. Lost luggage."

John (piping in): "Actually the project is a bit large, but it's just a few old Peace Corps types like me." --- "There's this guy who's invented a peanut sheller. There's another guy ... a college professor ... who improved on the design." --- "Did you know that peanuts are a staple food for much of the planet? People actually live on the peanuts." --- "It's tough work to shell peanuts, cuz they're not like you what get at a baseball game here." --- "Women in the villages are the ones doing the work, the shelling, and if they're lucky it takes them all day to produce only as much food as can sustain their family for one day."

I recalled saying to myself: "Peanut sheller ... what the (bleep) is John talking about? Is he off his meds or what?? Maybe there's something in the salmon they're hallucinating on?"

John (continuing and not really stopping to notice I have an incredulous expression on my face): "Here's what it kind of looks like" (he made a sketch on napkin)" --- "One person can vastly increase their production over what can be done by hand." --- "The machine - concrete and whatever nuts, bolts, pieces of steel you can get for a few dollars at store like Lowe's or Home Depot - and it can be made very quickly."

So many mental scenes later I felt like asking (and maybe I did, I just don't remember the words coming out of my mouth), "Is this for real or are you guys pulling my leg?"

Together they laughed, "This is for real. This is what we've been doing and what we are doing. We actually drive around the world into villages and help people make these things. And it is literally right now helping millions of people worldwide. And we're going to keep at it."

John (adds): "I'm in northern California to visit Silicon Valley. I've been setting up meetings anywhere I can get in a door, and I don't care who I talk to. I don't care if they say "yes" or "no". I go for the top person. I'm going to keep at it, because it's important and it's big. We're actually doing it."
A week later my phone rang. John and Eliza: "We're leaving for Wilmington and we want to have breakfast." I asked - When? They answered - "Tomorrow, because the plane leaves tomorrow night. We're on the run and we're coming for breakfast in the morning!"

Next morning. We walked down Petaluma's Walnut Street and across East Washington Street to Hallie's Diner. Nice place. Good food. We talked more about our prior conversation. They handed me a DVD, hand written on it the words "The Full Belly Project". We finished our breakfast, walked back to my home. They said, "Watch this and you'll understand." We said goodbye. They left. I went inside and put the disc into my DVD player.

Twenty minutes later. I opened AOL and prepared an email to - "I want to interview you and Eliza for my newsletter. We have to let people know about this. Will you?"

Next day. John replied, "YES."

The Interview with John Fogg and Eliza Bird

Allied Ronin: Tell us about yourselves. Start with when we first met.
John: We were both attorneys working in San Francisco when we met in 1992. I was working for a consumer protection agency, the California Department of Insurance.

Eliza: I had my own law firm specializing in estates, trusts, wills. We were introduced by a friend who had worked with both of us at different times. We later convinced our friend that now was the time to fulfill a life-long dream and join the Peace Corps. She was in the first group ever to serve Russia. We both stayed at those jobs until we retired in 2001.

Allied Ronin: When were you in the Peace Corps, where were you serving, what did you do and why?

John: I served as a Volunteer in the Amazon side of Bolivia from 1966 to 1968. My job involved village banks. This was an early micro finance project in that the village banks raised their own capital and managed their own affairs without outside help. They had an accounting system that could be kept by someone who couldn't read or write. My job was simply to support their formation and to help with any problems that arose. I was doing this because this was the Viet Nam era and I thought I could better serve my country in the Peace Corps than fighting in a war I didn't believe in.

Allied Ronin: In a nutshell (excuse the pun) what is the Full Belly Project? Tell us part of your actual story.

J&E: Full Belly started with someone by the name of Jock Brandis who observed the need for a simple peanut sheller while in Africa, helping a friend in the Peace Corps there. He promised to send a peanut sheller to them, only to find that there was no such hand operated machine. In fact, it was considered to by the "Holy Grail" of agricultural machines for developing countries as no one had ever been able to make one that actually worked. Not daunted by this, he simply invented one. Realizing that he needed an organization to develop and distribute this sheller, he went to the local association of returned Peace Corps Volunteers. A non-profit corporation called Full Belly Project was formed, and that was the beginning.

My (John) involvement started with my observing that the returned Peace Corps Volunteers were marching in a local parade. I showed up with my Bolivian flag and asked what that "concrete beehive" (the peanut sheller) was. It took off from there. I'm now the Co-President of the Board of Directors which only means I get to do whatever needs to be done and is not done by someone else. For a long time the Board of Directors did all the work of Full Belly just because there was nobody else. When we decided we needed employees, we found we had no means to pay them. Despite this, we had three people who believed so strongly in our mission that they worked full time for free. We have made some progress on the employee front since then, but we still don't pay them nearly what they are worth.

I am (Eliza) on the Advisory Board probably because they thought it might look good to have an attorney on there. That did not stop them from asking if I could drop everything and go to Guatemala with John to help set up a sheller factory there. John still remembers his Spanish from living in South America, and I studied Spanish whenever we traveled to Spanish-speaking countries. We spent almost a month in Guatemala and were gratified to have the factory up and running, as it still in today.

Allied Ronin: Give us a picture as to the size of the problem - world hunger - at least what you are involved with - what are we talking about?
J&E: Peanuts in American are considered a snack that is easily shelled. Neither is true in developing countries. Peanuts are a staple crop, so much so that over half a billion people, that's 500,000,000 people world-wide have peanuts as their primary protein source. Peanuts aren't roasted as in the U.S. Because of a lack of roasting facilities in the developing world, they are sun dried. That makes them tough and leathery. Subsistence farmers, people who can only eat what they can grow, only grow as many peanuts as they can tolerated to shell. With a simple. hand operated peanut sheller people can process peanuts so easily that they can increase the amount planted so they have more than enough to feed their families. The surplus can then be sold, taking a subsistence farmer into a market economy. That's a huge developmental step. Earnings can be used to educate children, including girls, improve living standards and be reinvested.

Allied Ronin: What is the machine you are talking about?
J&E: What originally looked like a "concrete beehive" is a seemingly simple machine made of concrete which is available world wide and metal parts that could be duplicated in any machine shop in the developing world. The concrete is poured into fiberglass molds which we supply and formed into two cones, one of which fits inside the other. The outer cone is fixed while the inner cone rotates, grinding the nut between them. It can be adjust to shell almost any sort of nut or other agricultural product. What would take a person a day to shell goes though this machine in less than an hour. The motive force is a hand crank, no electricity or diesel needed. The tests that the University of Georgia ran for us indicated that the working life of a sheller is about 25 years. Costs vary depending on the country where the sheller are produced, but $45 is the average price that the user pays. The usual situation is that the buyer is a cooperative or less formally, a village or a business man as the average farmer can't afford the $45. Many, many people, maybe a majority of people in the world, live on one dollar a day. $45 is simply out of sight for them as individuals.
We've been referring to the machine as a peanut sheller because it is easiest to explain how it works as that. In reality, it is a universal nut sheller (UNS) that can and does shell coffee, shea nuts (an ingredient in cosmetics), neem nuts (also a cosmetic ingredient, especially in Europe) and many other types of agricultural products. One of the most exciting is jatropha which is a source for bio-diesel. Jatropha grows where nothing else will so it does not compete with food crops, and it helps stabilize the soil. It is thought that it may push back the Sahara which has been expanding for years, while providing a cheap fuel source for vehicles, generators and other machinery.

Allied Ronin: Over dinner you addressed the whole idea of sustainability ... the peanut, what happens to the shells, the growing capacity of the ground and the nutrients, etc. Then there's the economic impact on a small village. Can you talk a bit about these things?

J&E: Our concept of sustainability is tied into our distribution concepts. Through trial and error, we have found that the best way for us to get our shellers into the hands of those who need them is to establish local entrepreneurs who set up a factory as an ordinary profit making business. That system has local business owners employing local labor to make shellers for local consumption. The ordinary market forces sustain the system, and we develop other such factories nearby so that competition keeps prices down.

Sustainability takes other forms when the peanuts, which are a legume, put nitrogen back in the soil that other crops, such as cotton, have taken out. We are working on making the peanut shells into briquettes that prevent deforestation by allowing the shells to be used as cooking fuel instead of cutting down trees. In the Philippines, a local cement manufacturer buys the shellers for the farmers. The farmers pay for the shellers by selling the peanut shells back to the cement factory which burns them to create the cement, thereby getting Kyoto carbon credits.

Allied Ronin: Former US President Jimmy Carter has put his weight behind helping you with this. How did this come about. What is Jimmy Carter adding to your efforts?
J&E: President Carter does not endorse products or projects, but he allowed Full Belly to come to the Carter Center in Plains, GA to demonstrate our sheller and to film that demonstration. He has also kindly allowed us the use that film as we like. In viewing the DVD, it apparent that President Carter who was a peanut farmer before becoming President immediately grasps the concept and the workings of the sheller. President Carter has done extensive work in Africa and appreciates what a simple hand operated machine like this means to the African farmer.

Allied Ronin: What can the average person - the person reading this interview - do that can help make the kind of difference that The Full Belly Project is seeking to make?
J&E: Our main need is money. We are struggling to develop corporate requirements such as audited financial statements so that we can make application to large contributors, but we need to sustain ourselves in the meantime. If we could have a substantial number of ordinary people who would be willing to donate what it costs a farmer in the developing world to buy a sheller, namely $45, that would go a long way toward getting us the funds we need to establish ourselves. Contributions in any amount can be made by pushing the "Donate" button on our Web site, Another option is to make a monthly donation. Sustaining donations of this sort are extremely helpful in planning and budgeting.

Allied Ronin: You gave me a video to watch. Is the video online and easy to view? If so, where can a person go to view it?
J&E: That same web site, has a video of one of our trips to Uganda and another video of our efforts in the Philippines. Just click on the heading "Video". We plan on expanding our Web site in the near future.

Allied Ronin: How can people contact The Full Belly Project? John: Anyone can contact us through our Web site or at Full Belly Project, 1020 Chestnut Street, Wilmington, NC 28401 or by phoning us at 910-452-0975 or by email at

Allied Ronin: is there anything else that you would like to say about the Full Belly Project and/or anything else?
John : Before Fully Belly came along, at one point I was asked what I would like to work on. I said I would like to work on world hunger. Later I though how arrogant to think any one person could have an effect on world hunger. Then my opportunity came with Full Belly. I invite your friend and associates to create their own opportunities by supporting our efforts. Thank you, Lance, for giving us this opportunity to communicate with people who could make all the difference in a world where it sometimes seems that no one cares.

Allied Ronin: Thanks so very much for taking time to let us know about The Full Belly Project and what you are doing - and most importantly, for doing it.

AFTERMATH - and continuing
Today is Friday, September 12. I am sitting in my room at the Longhill Hotel in Hangzhou China resting and getting ready to deliver two leadership trainings with the Samurai Game® (here for cultural and political reasons we call it The Warrior Game™). I am jetlagged, having arrived late last night after over twenty-four hours of driving and flying. I opened my email -and - there's message from John Fogg. I'll cut and paste the entire text for you:

From foggbird@yahoo.comLance, we just have been named an Awards Laureate by the Tech Museum in San Jose, CA. See This is a huge honor and may give us needed access to Silicon Valley. Meanwhile we are trying to put together a promotional video to use for our fund raising. And as they say, it takes money to make money. We figure that the video will cost us $10,000. While that is a lot of money, it will multiple itself by acting as a promotional video for our fund raising. I wonder if you could consider putting our request on your Web site. It would be possible that one of your friends, students, associates would be willing to help us with this. As you taught us, you have to put it out there in the universe if you want the universe to respond.
Thanks, John
John M. Fogg

My reply:3:10am - Sept 12 - Hangzhou, China (just got here -- working w/jetlag) Hi John -- I'll be happy to! I'll add it to the interview that will go out, plus have it added to "home page" of -- Congratulations! and love/respect to you - lance
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