Jock Brandis is a man of many talents. He was a gaffer on great films, such as “Blue Velvet” and “The Dead Zone,” and became one of Dino De Laurentiis’s right-hand men back when Wilmington, North Carolina, was being built up as Hollywood East in the mid-1980s. He volunteered with the Canadian version of the Peace Corps and his “make it up as you go” attitude made him invaluable on movie sets thereafter. Recently, a scientist he was working with at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on one of his newest inventions referred to him as the Henry Ford of the Stone Age, because “we’re basically making Stone Age tools and mass producing them,” Brandis told us over Skype during an interview from “Wilmywood.”
In 2006, Brandis met Rob Hill, a documentary filmmaker who also lives in Wilmington, and after a couple years of following Brandis around the world with his Full Belly Project and documenting it, Hill began to see a pattern in their efforts of spreading global sustainability.
“I’d been asked to screen a work-in-progress at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival,” Hill explained, “and I strung together this footage that looked more like a 30-minute trailer of some kind with no ending. It was then that I realized where all this footage should go and how it should be disseminated.”
The last few years have been spent filming and producing footage for “RePlan It,” a project that Brandis and Hill hope will revolutionize the way simple technology can be integrated sustainably into communities around the world that are in dire need of resources like running water, soap and other basic utilities.
The crux of their work is based in “sustainable solutions through open source innovation.”
“We want anyone everywhere to be able to replicate the process on their own and implement these inventions in their own communities around the globe,” Hill said.
And as a completely request-oriented organization, each new city or village ends up bringing them to a new place with a new set of problems.
“People come to the Full Belly Project because they know we’re designers for the bottom billion and we’re nonprofit,” Brandis said. “We’re a public domain organization so part of what we try to do is develop things and then simply help people steal the idea and move it on. That’s the beauty of being a nonprofit.”
They’re in the final phases of funding with an Indiegogo campaign and have a distribution deal already in place with KCET. They’d had other offers in the past that seemed to want to turn it in to a sensationalist reality show, but that just didn’t align with their goals. They now have about 90 percent of production complete for six episodes, and KCET will launch the first three in the fall, but as a publicly funded organization, KCET doesn’t come with a budget for costs associated with distribution.
“We’re doing the Indiegogo campaign to help finish post production and do some publicity and marketing to launch the series,” Hill said. “And besides getting us over that hump to finally broadcast, it helps engage communities and build an audience.”
Here are three innovative solutions highlighted in the first season:
The Peanut Sheller
The Need: A friend of Brandis’s who quit the film industry and joined the Peace Corps was in a village in Mali, West Africa, and enlisted Brandis to come fix their solar powered irrigation system.
“He’s that kind of guy if you need something fixed or built you go to Jock,” Hill said.
Brandis went to Mali and fixed the irrigation system in a day and happened to notice some women sitting around shelling peanuts by hand. He found the woman in charge of their agricultural co-op, who told him that during harvest season women and children spent up to 18 hours every day shelling peanuts by hand to get them to market. Brandis insisted that there must be some sort of machine that existed that would enable to shell faster or more efficiently.
He came back to the U.S., did a Google search and found nothing. There were large mechanized machines that shelled peanuts for industrialized farms, but nothing on the village level, nothing that ran without electricity. He contacted the Carter Foundation, who put him in touch with the University of Georgia agricultural department, and he talked with Dr. Tim Williams, the world leading expert on industrialized peanut farming, who told Brandis that it didn’t exist and what he was seeking was the Holy Grail of sustainable agriculture.
The Solution: Brandis began tinkering, gleaning inspiration from a design he found in a Bulgarian peanut machine that was funnel-like. A friend suggested he use concrete, and in a couple months, he invented the first personal peanut sheller — two fiberglass molds that get concrete poured into them to create a hollow tube tapered with a rotor in the middle. There are some metal parts and a spindle, and it rolls the peanuts around the rotor and rolls the shells off of them. It’s adjustable for different sized nuts as well.
The Impact: Since the Full Belly Project is a two-person staffed organization (with about 200 volunteers), it’s been difficult tracking the metrics of their solutions. The other problem — which is actually part of the solution — is that they’re shipped as a factory in a box.
“We don’t actually know how many peanut shellers are being made because they’re shipped as a full kit so that people can make them out of the molds all over the world,” Hill said.
Women in Africa “spend 4 billion hours a year shelling peanuts by hand, according to the Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program,” CNN reported. The peanut sheller actually increases the amount of time and the volume you can produce by fifty times, so it cuts their workload into fractions. Now, what you can shell by hand in an hour can be shelled in about ten minutes. This frees them up for other opportunities, like focusing on education or healthcare and family.
The Rocking Water Pump
The Need: The rocking water pump was a version of the gravity water pump — a stair climber device that people get on and pump water by walking. There were some NGOs from China in the late 1980s and early ’90s that put these all over Africa. After Brandis had helped revitalize a family farm in North Carolina with gravity and solar powered water pumps, he and his friend Stefan Phang, the director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility for Sealed Air (a plastics manufacturing company that has partnered with the Full Belly Project on various projects), thought that a solution similar to this would be perfect for India where they’d seen many rural areas with no easy access to water.
The Solution: Brandis’s version of the pump used a rocking mechanism. Instead of physical energy exerted, the person can stand on it and use their body weight to rock back and forth, allowing them to create ten times the amount of water as the treadle pump. The reverse check valve system is made from some plastic parts, some old inner tube tires and some nuts and bolts, costing only about fifty dollars to make. Like the peanut sheller, it’s shipped in a full kit and is reproducible anywhere you can find the parts.
The Impact: The rocking pump irrigates two acres of land per day for each pump, so they’re usually used by subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia. These small-holder farmers are growing small crops, irrigation, or pigs or cattle so that’s a pretty big impact with that small device.
The Soap Press
The Need: While in India building the rocking water pump, Phang told Brandis about one of their biggest recycling issues: used soaps. Sealed Air’s largest customer base is in the hospitality industry and their largest waste product at that time was used hotel soaps. Brandis and Hill thought that they could create a system of recycling the soap like Clean the World, which charges hotels by the room and sends the soap off to a centralized factory in India where they melt it down and redistribute it all over the world.
“We thought that if we could decentralize that and bring it to the village level, it could aid the people right there,” Hill said.
The first hotel they went to in Cambodia threw away 2.2 tons of soap a year, and only a bicycle ride away there were children who had never washed their hands with soap before.
The Solution: The soap press is made up of metal parts and is hand-operated. One example of a solution they found is in Phnom Penh, where a non-profit organization will receive used soaps from hotels. The soap will then get cut into small pieces and get soaked in a water and bleach solution. The soap pieces are then put into the soap press and a new brick of soap emerges.
The Impact: Like with all their solutions, the Full Belly Project works on the theory not to send products to people in need, but to send out factories so that people can make the products: the factory in a box — always small enough to fit into checked luggage on a plane ride.
The soap press doesn’t just solve the sanitation issue, programs like Soap for Hope also create a hopefully long lasting livelihood for these women. One model they used in Cambodia was in conjunction with a non-profit organization that serviced a slum district in Phnom Penh with education and livelihood programs. The NGO was spending about $1,200 a year purchasing soap to be given away.
A program was created for five star hotels to donate their used soap directly to this program, Indochina Starfish, and instead of using the money and buying soap to give away, they employed three women to make soap to give away. They increased the volume of soap going into the community by roughly 2,000 percent and employed three women part-time to run the program.
Normally, these women are working for about a dollar a day, and with this program they are making closer to $2 per day. It’s only a part time job for them, earning them almost double the median average age for women in their communities.
Top photo courtesy of “RePlan It” and KCET