The Conversation

Jock Brandis Moves On

Wilmington’s Renaissance man looks forward to new adventures — and being the neighborhood handyman

By Dana Sachs

Jock Brandis

A lot of people will know you as the co-founder of the Full Belly Project, a Wilmington nonprofit that has helped reduce hunger around the world, in large part due to a product you invented, the universal peanut sheller. We’ll get to that later, but how would you describe yourself?

I was born in the Netherlands and raised on a farm in northern British Columbia. After university, I joined the Canadian version of the Peace Corps. I taught school in the worst slum in Jamaica for two years. That kind of radicalized me. And then I went off with (the charity) Oxfam to join the Nigerian Civil War.

You evacuated children from the conflict zone, right?

From Biafra. You never want to get involved with an African civil war, and you never want to get involved with the losing side, because the losing side is infinitely more depressing than the winning side.

What discouraged you?

I realized that we probably made the situation worse. We stretched the war out for an extra year. I ended up writing a book about it called The Ship’s Cat. It’s a “futility of war” book — lots of people do “futility of war” books. If you’re going to write a book at the end of a war, it had better be about futility. If it isn’t, it’s not an accurate book.

How did that experience affect you?

I came back determined that that was the end of my do-gooder stage of life. I was going to go to Hollywood and get into the movie business and hang around in hot tubs with movie stars. That became my life’s ambition. I started doing big-budget movies in Toronto.

Did you like the movie business?

For a young man, it’s a totally fun game. And that’s where I met Dino De Laurentiis, and he brought me down here to Wilmington to help set up the movie studio. That was 1984. And I stayed.

You worked on a lot of horror movies — Blood and Guts; Drop Dead, Dearest; Funeral Home. As a lighting director, you must have had to solve a lot of technical problems. Can you describe one?

The movie was called Alien Encounters. We had to make flying saucers fly — with no budget. I got a very large piece of glass and I mounted it on a system so that this piece of glass could move in three directions, with a joy stick. And then I mounted small flying saucers on that. They looked like they were flying around. Back then, people used to hang their flying saucers on wires. If you mount it on glass, you don’t see any wires.

How do you feel when you’re presented with a problem like that?

I love it. It’s the best.

Why did you leave the film business?

My wife got sick. I had two small children and she got cancer. She spent five years dying, basically. I couldn’t be on someone else’s schedule anymore. I had to be there to feed the kids. So I set up a business to build specialized electrical generators for the film industry. That allowed me some freedom. If there was a crisis, I could drop everything and run home.

That’s the ultimate problem-solving.

It is. I got spectacular support from this community. I don’t think there’s a place in the world that would have supported me better than Wilmington.

What brought you back around to Africa?

I still had the ghosts of the Nigerian Civil War in my head. A friend joined the Peace Corps and went to Mali. She sent me a letter saying, “This little place is absolute paradise. Can you come and help us fix a solar electric water system?” All I’d ever seen of Africa was horror. Now maybe I could see an Africa that wasn’t, so I got on the plane.

And that was when — I get into trouble by making promises I can’t keep, and then I have to keep them. So, when I was leaving this village, I saw women shelling peanuts by hand. Their fingertips were bleeding. The head of the women’s group asked me to find a peanut-shelling machine and send it back. I said, “Absolutely.” But I came back to the States and couldn’t find it. So I had to invent one.

What is the intellectual process you go through to solve a problem like that?

I am a Fail Early, Fail Often guy. If I can try something and it fails in four hours, that’s more efficient than if I try something and it fails in four days.

It sounds like science.

Science is much more deliberative. I just quickly knock stuff together and fail. And then I knock something else together and fail a little less. Every time I do it, I fail a little less. It goes very quickly.

This is a great lesson.

With young people, I say, “This is going to be a failure. It’s going to be highly embarrassing. We’re all going to laugh at ourselves.” The motto is: “Fail early. Fail often. Fail better. And fail in a very public way.”

Why publicly?

Because that way you’ll get a lot of interesting input. If I’m trying something out in Africa, I do it in the market, when everyone is around. People give you 20 different ideas. Fifteen will be totally stupid. Two or three will have some merit. And two of them will be total genius.

Your universal peanut sheller has been adapted throughout the world, and the Full Belly Project emerged out of that. After two decades, though, you left Full Belly earlier this year. What happened?

If you’re the co-founder of an organization and you get a lot of freedom, you develop some bad habits. It didn’t work well as a hierarchy. I was the lowest guy on the totem pole. Things worked well when I had a lot of freedom to move the direction of invention and to choose the projects with our team of volunteers. Then a new board of directors and executive director wanted to take over this function themselves. Once it started to unravel, it completely unraveled. I was let go and all the volunteer programs were shut down.

What’s next for you?

The core of the old Full Belly volunteer team — our retired doctors and engineers — have come back together. And we’re on hemp. Growing hemp is an exploding business in North Carolina now, but all they’re doing is growing it for the seed and oil. They leave all the fiber behind in the field. We want hemp farmers on the old tobacco lands to get more money from their crop.

The Full Belly website said that you had retired, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve retired.

I was going to retire at 75. I’m 72. When I really retire, I’ll just be the neighborhood handyman. Tell everyone I will fix their bird feeder.

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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