Jock Brandis: An Edison For the Bottom Billion


The Ongoing Quest of a Humanitarian Genius

by Joel Finsel

originally published in SALT
click here for original spread and images

Brandis, photo from Replan It

The tall, slender, gray-haired man known simply as “Jock” to people scattered all over the planet was born with the slightly more exotic name of Joost Brender a Brandis, in 1946, and not in North Carolina, but in the Netherlands. When he was still a baby the family moved to an isolated farm in northern British Columbia, where he spent his childhood. His parents had not been farmers, but his father had always wanted to live in the country (on the passenger’s list of the SS Delftdyk, which sailed into San Francisco in August of 1947, he identified himself as a Dutch “agriculturist”). It was an upbringing that required a lot of improvisation. “We were so isolated,” he says, “and there was no place to buy anything. If we wanted toys, we had to build them from scraps of wood.” At age 12 he was given a simple how-to science kit and within a year had learned enough from it to fashion a crude blowtorch, which he used to begin building a small jet engine. According to the book his sister wrote about him fifty years later, Thinking Big, Building Small, the sight of a young boy doing such dangerous work had proved alarming to visiting Dutch relatives. But his parents indulged it.

For a time, in his teens and twenties, Brandis’s urge to tinker with machines lay dormant. He enlisted in the navy, to pay for college, which eventually he did attend, majoring in anthropology. After graduating, and with his “idealism glands working overtime,” Brandis joined CUSO (Canada’s version of the Peace Corps) and wound up living in the Trench Town slum of Kingston, Jamaica, where he was supposed to teach rude boys auto repair. But because he was one of the only people there with a university degree, they asked him to teach general science instead. He did receive his first exposure to filmmaking during these years, coming to know the director Perry Hensel (of Harder They Come fame), but mainly Brandis found himself giving lectures on what he felt were essentially useless concepts, to kids who desperately needed hands-on skills to improve their lot and even for survival.

Brandis never forgot the frustration he’d felt, in those classrooms. It sparked a belief in him that most often what people in crisis needed was not cultural betterment but know-how. Give them tools to take care of themselves and they’ll build the rest. Working with Canairelief in the late 60s to help starving children in the war-torn country of Biafra (at one point it was estimated that 5,000 children were dying a day), he found that he never felt as useful as when — at a base on the old Portuguese penal colony of São Tomé — he was able to put his metalworking skills to use fixing shrapnel holes in the relief planes that carried the supplies. He accompanied some of these missions as “loadmaster,” physically exchanging tons of food for starving babies, some of whom died as they lay on blankets in the cargo hold under his watch. On one of these expeditions, while riding in a jeep across a crater-strewn runway, Brandis looked up at the man across from him and recognized Kurt Vonnegut, there to report on the massacres (Brandis’s stories often contain these fantastical-seeming but, it will turn out, verifiable details).

“It was a fast way to grow up,” he says with characteristic understatement about his time in Biafra. But in hearing him talk about it one gets the sense that some of what he witnessed left scars. Poverty and violence had been one thing, blood and death and starvation were another. At the age of 25 — but much older in terms of experience — he decided to go home to Canada, hoping to pursue a lighter existence for a while.

It was at this point that Brandis’s oldest love — amateur invention, tinkering with gizmos — came back into his life through a strange channel (though one familiar to many in the Port City), the movie business. In Toronto, he landed work on the set of a forgettable comedy-thriller titled 125 Rooms of Comfort. He was hired as a gaffer, basically a lighting electrician. This led to work on several other productions. During one, the “rather grisly motorcycle gang feature” Race Home to Die, he noticed how the thick cables that snaked across the floor were causing everyone problems, tripping the actors and making it hard to maneuver carts. He started daydreaming a sort of structure, a system of aerial rigging that would elevate the light-cables up off the floor, both removing them from people’s way and making the lights easier to move. The design involved a series of interlocking aluminum segments that, via a system of screws, could be made to hang in place overhead in various irregular spaces (making it perfect for on-location shoots). He called it the Light-Beam. The December 1974 issue of Cinema Canada called the invention “revolutionary” and included this little scene under “Technical News”:

"Toronto lighting-cameraman Jock Brandis strolled into our office not too long ago with a home-made equipment case in hand, and proceeded to construct a lighting beam across our office which was capable of supporting a couple of hundred pounds of lighting gear without making a mark on the wall. Not only that, but the entire thing weighs less than 20 pounds."


Brandis from Cinema Canada in 1978

The article goes on to add that, “Mr. Brandis may be found in his basement, hand-assembling these highly practical and useful items.”

Four years later Brandis was living not in a basement but on a tugboat in Toronto Harbor. For fun he restored antique motorcycles. He’d set up his metal-shop in an abandoned warehouse with towering ceilings in an industrial part of Toronto (in a surreal twist he was approached by a group of French Canadian circus artists wanting to know if they could “rent the air” above Brandis and his team, in order to get used to performing above crowds, as they soon began doing under the name Cirque du Soleil).

According to Cinema Canada Jock’s “innovative designs,” some of which are still in use on movie sets around the world, had “established [him] as a living, breathing legend of the film business.” The magazine even ran a beefcake-y picture of him, to accompany the profile.

In 1984, the “Italian DeMille,” Dino De Laurentiis — the producer who made the great La Strada with Fellini (and also made Barbarella) — decided he liked Wilmington and wanted to start making movies here. For the enterprise to work so far from Hollywood, and from the special skills and workshops that had grown up around the industry there, De Laurentiis needed people with highly adaptable talents. He needed guys like Jock, who even if they weren’t in your department could tackle special problems as they arose and cobble together solutions, with limited materials, as actors sat getting paid to wait in their trailers. When directors needed quieter generators, or a bed that would appear to eat people whole, or somebody who knew how older lighting systems worked, they knew they could call Brandis. For twenty years he was a gaffer/prop maker/best boy/fixer, working on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the Stephen King films Cat’s Eye and Maximum Overdrive, eventually earning an Emmy for his work on, of all things, Monday Night Football. “I was basically a lighting guy,” he says, “but I was never that good at the politics of it. At one point I did a movie with a pair of big stars, and I thought, if I ever have to spend another day with these oxygen-thieves, I’ll shoot myself.”

One day a friend of his, a woman named Carrie who’d become similarly disgusted by displays of Hollywood behavior, simply walked off the set. It was a particularly stupid film, and she was a script consultant. She threw down her clipboard, announced to everyone in the room that she’d been “put on the planet to do better things with her life,” and left. She joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa, to a mud-hut village in Mali called Woroni, where she stayed.

In 2001 Brandis got a call from her. The solar-powered water pump that powered the village’s water system was broken. Nobody knew how to fix it. The Danish government workers who’d installed it fifteen years earlier were long gone, and without regular maintenance, it had stopped working. She’d told the local officials she knew some people who might be able to figure it out. Jock joined a team of local volunteers and, with some trepidation (this was his first trip to Africa since he’d left the “hell” of Biafra in a hail of gunfire three decades before), flew to Mali.

When the pump was fixed, some folks decided to hang around in Mali for a while. Jock did a few days of exploring around, getting to know the village. Lush, green Woroni was a far different place than Biafra had been. It was actually more like “paradise,” he says.


Woroni, Mali

One morning he walked out into the surrounding cotton fields. Having at that point been a Southerner for many years, he understood how the crop could devastate once fertile fields by robbing the soil of nitrogen. He was reassured to come upon a group of women shelling sun-dried peanuts. The villagers understood a basic concept of soil conservation, that peanuts and other legumes can replace the nitrogen cotton absorbs (the lesson George Washington Carver taught us in America).

But then Brandis looked closer and noticed the women’s hands. They were raw and in some cases bleeding, from shelling the tough and leathery sun-dried nuts, using nothing but their fingers. And although Brandis couldn’t have known it at that moment, these cuts in their hands were allowing a mold-born toxin to enter their bloodstreams, giving many of them a sometimes deadly immune disease.

“I thought, surely there was a better way,” Brandis says.

Before he left Africa, he made “a very casual promise” to the head of the local women’s cooperative that if she would encourage the villagers to plant more peanuts, he would send them a shelling machine. “I figured they could take the excess to market.”

Back in Wilmington, he sat down at the computer, assuming that a few minutes online and a credit-card transaction would be enough to satisfy his end of the bargain. But logging on led only to frustration. He found that he could easily buy a peanut-shelling factory if he wanted, but nothing that would be of any real value in a village that lacked electricity.

Confounded, he did what any rational person interested in peanut-culture would do and called Jimmy Carter. The former president’s secretary got in touch with him, and dropped heavy news: Brandis was wasting his time. The machine didn’t exist. Other people had called asking about it over the years, he’d checked. Brandis would have to tell the woman he couldn’t deliver.

This was precisely the sort of challenge that Brandis had always loved, that had fueled him as a kid in that cold shed back in British Columbia. Something didn’t exist — you had to make it yourself. Hearing that others had tried and failed just encouraged him. “Whenever I have an idea people don’t laugh at,” he says, “I seriously reconsider.”

At first he had only a string of setbacks. The technical difficulties were formidable. It was easy to make a simple machine that would crack open shells, but one that would do so without harming the nuts inside, and especially with any kind of speed or efficiency, that was different. He ran through a sketch-book’s worth of failed designs.

His luck changed when he made contact with an expert in the field of plant physiology, a professor named Tim Williams at the University of Georgia. Williams had also been looking for a small nut sheller, describing it as “the holy grail of sustainable agriculture.” His own years of searching and tinkering had produced one potential clue: he’d seen a sketch of a machine that another traveler had encountered in a Bulgarian village (Bulgaria was long one of the only places in Europe that grew peanuts). The machine worked by rolling the nuts around in a kind of cone, a hollow cone with another, solid cone inside of it, and just enough space left between the two to crush the shells without hurting the nut. Williams sent Brandis a copy of the sketch.

Brandis — accustomed to working with metal — immediately took the picture to a friend’s machine shop. But the machinist surprised him by suggesting they consider concrete rather than steel. “I hate messing with concrete,” Brandis can be heard saying in a Canadian documentary made about this project. “I automatically assumed my idea was better than his, and having sufficiently ridiculed him, I got in my pick-up. I drove about a block when it dawned on me that he was a genius . . .”

Concrete could be made anywhere in the world, solving a major aspect of the shipping problem. Instead of sending finished machines, they’d send kits with molds and a few prefabricated metal pieces. People could build the sheller anywhere, and for almost nothing.

One problem: the molds had to be both light enough to ship and strong enough to hold up under repeated pourings of concrete. Brandis visited his old friend Pete Klingenberger, a local boat builder, to ask about the possibility of using fiber-glass. Klingenberger is “a man of infinite patience,” says Brandis, who brought him model after model, as he tinkered with the design. Klingerberger would cast each one in fiberglass. 

After months and dozens of prototypes, they created a machine that worked . . . but only when shelling a single nut at a time. In the Bulgarian sketch, the cone had been upside down, i.e., with the fatter part at the top (a funnel shape, the most natural-seeming shape for the task). But it created a situation inside the machine where multiple lanes essentially merged into one, jamming at the bottom.

Brandis made the one modification he accepts credit for: reversing the geometry. He literally flipped the design on its head, giving it more the shape of a traffic cone or an old-fashioned butter-churner. Now it worked beautifully, the nuts and shells falling together out of the bottom into a basket, to be wind-threshed like wheat and chaff. In an hour, someone using the sheller could outperform five others working by hand for a day. The quickly dubbed Universal Nut Sheller is now in use in at least thirty-six countries. Thousands of lives have been saved, and many more thousands improved.

In the dozen years since its invention, Brandis’s peanut machine and his efforts to disseminate it have made him famous. He has won a $100,000 Purpose Prize for humanitarianism, a Popular Mechanics “Breakthrough” Award, and been invited to deliver a series of lectures at M.I.T. on the value of “Stone Age” technology in the modern world. Numerous documentaries and interviews cast him as a dashing inventor-hero.

In person, he seems refreshingly uninterested in the myth of himself. Quick to joke, self-deprecating, eager to engage with strangers. Of the different interviews I’ve done with him, about 99 percent were conducted in bars. His daughter, Maaike, owns Cape Fear Wine and Beer. His son, Darwin, followed him into the film industry. His partner, Gwenyfar, runs Old Books on Front Street. He carries himself very much like an unassuming fellow citizen. The Canadian in him? You do get a sense that a big part of Jock never left that shed in British Columbia. He never comes quite as alive as when talking about making things, describing his latest inventions. “How’s it going?” you might say. “Great!” he replies. “Hey, what if we built a cellphone charger that was powered by houseplants?” Or, “I’m working on this gravity-powered water pump, trying to figure out how to keep it working when the stream is low,” and he’s off . . .

Jock Brandis with President Carter with a 
Universal Nut Sheller at The Carter Center

The enterprise that has consumed his attention during the past decade is the internationally recognized Full Belly Project, which Brandis co-founded in 2003 with a group of fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers. The non-profit started its mission under an unusual banner: to create technology for “the bottom billion people” on the planet. One of the unfortunate things about that market is, there’s not a lot of money in it. Which explains how the industrialized world could go a century without inventing a machine as simple and vital as a hand-turned peanut sheller. But people invent things they’re hoping to sell. Full Belly is different. It works to invent things that it’s actually hoping to give away, or even just to teach other people how to make. Brandis never even took out a patent on the Universal Nut Sheller. 

Most of the organization’s work has been done in the developing world where a lack of infrastructure makes smaller, human-scale machines essential. Recently, however, Brandis’s thinking has taken an interesting, inward turn. In 2009, after an awards ceremony at Stanford, he met a man named Tim Wills, who’d founded the non-profit Foothills Connect, a “rural technology” initiative that worked to link North Carolina farmers with high-class chefs in Charlotte. The locavore food movement had created a market for locally, sustainably grown crops, but it wasn’t easy for the restaurants and the small farmers to find one another. More than that, many of the farmers were facing new challenges brought on by climate change. There was less rain, for one thing. They’d grown used to growing only corn, and corn needs a lot of resources. It’s easier for big farms, with giant irrigation and fertilizer systems. But for the smaller landholders, “Monsanto has left them behind,” Jock says.

Wills introduced Brandis to Henry Edwards, an 84-year-old man in the North Carolina foothills whose 340-acre farm has been in his family since the eighteenth century. When Edwards started growing corn, “back when the climate cooperated,” as he put it, rains averaged fifty-five inches, which was enough not to require irrigation. Recent droughts had changed all that. Still, the family was holding on.

On Jock’s first visit to the Edwards’ farm, he watched Henry push an antique hand-cultivator through the field to dig a furrow. “I thought, ‘That’s too Africa for words.’” He quickly realized that some of what he’d been doing and learning in other, poorer countries was relevant to people in his backyard.

In consultation with Henry Edwards, the farmer’s son, Duncan (a former Exxon geophysicist who worked closely with Brandis at the farm), and Tim Wills of Foothills Connect, Brandis turned the power of his daydreaming on an Appalachian small-farm. They developed a cluster of ingenious devices: a gravity-powered water pump that sits directly in the bed of a stream and by a seesawing motion generates enough energy to move water 900 feet, also a portable pump apparatus that could be moved from pasture to pasture with the stock and used to fill the drinking troughs, which could themselves be modified into special solar-powered motion-activated basins (Brandis calls them “horse water fountains”) that can detect an animal’s approach, filling and emptying as needed or not, getting rid of the stagnant pools that breed equine diseases like “the strangles.” In the last two years the Edwards clan has started harvesting eight to ten acres of corn again.

On a recent Saturday, I joined about twenty other volunteers at the Full Belly Project’s cerulean-blue shed on Chestnut Street. Brandis was in Cambodia, filming an episode of the documentary series REPLAN-IT. The challenge was to help poor people in Cambodia who don’t have access to sanitation. Brandis and the other crew members were staying in nice hotels in Phnom Penh, and he noticed (as one does occasionally) how much soap was being wasted. He used the bar once or twice, but the maids replaced it every day. Meanwhile the people they’d come to help were dying, some of them, from unsanitary conditions. Full Belly partnered with a Cambodian NGO to start a soap-recycling initiative. The used soap bars are sterilized, used coffee grounds are stirred in as an exfoliant, and the mixture is pressed into new bars. The hotels buy the machines and do the soap-making. In exchange they get to put up little cards in their bathrooms boasting of the fact, providing some valuable green P.R. 

Snooping around the shop, I took in a few of Brandis’s other recent inventions. There were portable sanitation stations to be positioned next to outhouses (empty two-liter soda bottles are suspended upside down around a kind of concrete sink, with a barrel-and-tire contraption to catch used water). There were aflatoxin Peanut-screeners (they look like futuristic versions of those old Fisher Price Viewmasters and use black light to identify infected nuts). And finally, desks designed to fold out into beds for students in typhoon-stricken places, where schools are often the only safe havens to wait out storms. There was also a new design for students in Africa where most children are still forced to sit on classroom floors. The skeleton of the seat and table is built of a single piece of rebar—the pliable metal rods sometimes seen jutting from cracked concrete—folded fifteen times into an origami desk. A high school volunteer came up with it. The surfaces will be made of the “mountains of plastic trash” in places like Nairobi, where the Full Belly Project will soon begin partnering with another NGO already on the ground. Jock envisions paying slum-dwelling children to gather the plastic. He will set up the solar ovens somewhere out in public, a place where locals can gather to watch him melt it into hard sheets, offer their own ideas, and hopefully decide to use the same process to make other materials, like roofing tiles. Scanning all the prototypes, it was obvious that Brandis’s quest to design for the bottom billion was far from complete. It could even be said that he’s just getting underway.

Grabbing a pair of work gloves from a nail by the door, I overheard one high-school-age volunteer, a tall dark-haired kid, ask another what they should do with Jock out of town.

“What we always do,” the other answered. “Get the shop ready for when he’s back.”