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After two decades, Wilmington's Full Belly Project closes up shop

universal_nut_sheller_-_full_belly.jpg
Full Belly Project
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Universal Nut Shellers on display in Chipata, Zambia.

After two decades the Wilmington based non-profit Full Belly Project has closed up shop. Here's a closer look at what made the project special, what brought an end to the organization, and the legacy the group leaves behind.

Full Belly Project founder Jock Brandis wore many hats: actor and film technician, author, humanitarian, and -- above all --  relentless inventor.

It was Brandis’ simple, sturdy, and relatively inexpensive inventions -- most notably the universal nut sheller and the rocker water pump --- that earned him coverage and accolades from Popular Mechanics, CNN, and NPR. Through the Full Belly Project, Brandis used these inventions to address community issues in Africa.

Now, Brandis says, the group has come apart.

“It's unfortunate that the Full Belly Project was around for 20 years and did a lot of really good stuff and somehow came apart from the inside.”

But back to the beginning: according to Dr. Lesley Daspit, now former chair of the Full Belly Project, Brandis’s inventions were the origin of the organization itself.

“I think you had some, some really great ideas from the founder, Jock Brandis --- him being in North Africa and Mali, identifying a problem where, you know, women and girls are spending significant amount of times, shelling peanuts by hand.”

In addition to the group’s work overseas, Brandis’ Wilmington workshop also got locals hooked. Ed Wadbrook, former co-chair and treasurer, said Brandis’ ideas also pulled in community partners.

“The enthusiasm, I mean, just you go around the community, and people say, ‘you're with that organization? I've heard about it, but I don't know enough about it.’ And then when you tell them, it's like, ‘how can we help?”

Starting at the beginning of the 2018 financial year, a new board looked at how to organize and scale-up Full Belly’s efforts, Daspit said. That meant gauging how much impact the organization’s work was actually having, which she considered the board’s ethical responsibility to donors and volunteers.

“So we couldn't really fully, concretely, with data, say how lives were being improved.”

At the same time, Wadbrook said he tried to bring his business experience to bear on Brandis’ inventions.

“You want to streamline things. And we were trying to I was trying to bring some processes to it. And it was a little bit of a challenge. And we try and we work together, I mean, countless times at the Copper Penny, burgers and beers, to see how we could work through these things.”

The board now says after an extensive, independent review, it didn’t feel Full Belly was having a significant impact in Africa and, at the same time, it didn’t have a way forward to expand the organization.

The inability to see a way forward, after and beyond Brandis’ involvement, was the beginning of the end. In 2019, Brandis left Full Belly. According to the Board, he retired; according to Brandis, he was let go. But both acknowledge it was Brandis’ vision that had given the organization momentum for years and, following his departure, fundraising became more difficult, a situation only worsened by Covid-19, which also made travel impractical. 

In December of 2020, Full Belly’s board announced the organization was dissolving (you can find the board's full statement online here, including details on the dispersal of the organization's remaining assets, or at the end of this article).

Brandis calls it a difference of opinion.

“It did not, it did not come apart from any outside forces, it was just differences of opinion on which way the nonprofit would go. And then when the volunteer programs were shut down, and I was let go, that seemed to be the end of it. That's all I can say.” 

Brandis and Daspit do agree on the legacy of Full Belly Project, which was the level of community engagement and the lasting benefit volunteers took away from that involvement, whether that was global consciousness or a lasting love of invention.

“The legacy really is more about the local community here in the Wilmington area where we created a strong cohort of global citizens, I have local people who are interested in international global issues, and how to make the world a better place for everyone.” 

“So that basically lives on and all those people who had the experience and benefited by it, so that might be the best legacy, the technology not so much, but the people, yes.”

And there is one other important legacy: $10,000 towards the foundation of a scholarship at Cape Fear Community College, which officials hope will continue to receive the same community support that Full Belly did for so many years.

For WHQR, I’m Ben Schachtman.

 

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Full statement from the Full Belly Project Board of Directors, including disperal of assets:

 

Thanks, and appreciation to all donors and participants for their support and efforts over the years that have been provided to such an innovative concept as the Full Belly Project. It is with great regret that the Full Belly Project’s Board of Directors announces the dissolution of the organization.  This decision came two years after the present Board of Directors extensively reviewed the current and historical operations of this organization  when the organization’s Founder, Jock Brandis, announced his intention to retire in July 2018.  In this Board’s efforts to create intentional, sustainable programming and to grow the impact of the Full Belly Project, several insurmountable challenges emerged.

The mission of the Full Belly Project has been to design and distribute innovative, sustainable technologies with our local community that empower people all over the world to improve their own lives.  The organization pursued this mission through the development of creative solutions that included the Universal Nut Sheller, the Rocker Water Pump, and the Soap Press.  Our most recent efforts were focused on aflatoxin alleviation with groundnut farmers in Eastern Zambia.  However, after an extensive review from an independent researcher alongside this Board of Directors, it became apparent that despite producing and delivering numerous pieces of technology across the globe there was little documented evidence of significant impact in the recipient communities. 

At the local level, the need for organizational changes in programming design and implementation illuminated staffing issues that led to the exit of the Executive Director.  For the Board of Directors, this left us with a critical vacancy in staffing that could not be filled given the financial instability of the organization and the retirement of the Founder whose vision inspired much of the organization’s momentum.  Further, this Board of Directors also concluded that the organization’s programming had largely been driven by the ideas of the Founder with no sustainable business model or succession planning developed by either the Founder or previous Boards of Directors.

Ultimately, these circumstances detailed above affected the long-term viability of the organization. Moreover, the current COVID-19 pandemic added to this financial instability and handicapped the Board’s ability to keep the organization afloat in numerous ways.  As such, largely due to the hardships of fundraising and international travel during the pandemic, we were no longer able to continue with subsequent phases in our aflatoxin alleviation project in Zambia or to pursue new programming, to bring volunteers into the workshop, or to fill vacancies from the prior year’s personnel turnover.

Nevertheless, the Full Belly Project has left a significant impact on the local Wilmington community. This simple, yet innovative idea of generating appropriate, low-tech solutions for struggling agricultural communities and the possibility to be a part of this unique, local initiative that could have even the smallest positive impact on monumental issues in international development drew a wealth of local support and participation; especially in getting youth involved in and connected to world issues.  The sense of purpose expressed by the Founder instilled that same sense in the organization as a whole. Thus, the local impact was the greater impact of this organization: connecting local individuals to global problems and solutions, which is inherent to the mission of the Full Belly Project.

Overall, in designing the future direction for the Full Belly Project, this Board of Directors wanted to expand the organization’s professional connections, develop intentional programming and overcome the challenges in the organization’s history while staying true to its original mission.  Unfortunately, this proved untenable.

On behalf of the Full Belly Project, we generously thank you for your support over the years.  At this time, we are furthering the legacy of the Full Belly Project through the distribution of our assets to non-profit organizations in the larger Wilmington community and others who work in the realms of international development and humanitarian relief.  Specifically, we will be distributing monies to the United Way of the Cape Fear Area ($100,000),  Feast Down East ($14,000), Water for Good ($5,000) and Mercy Corps ($5,000).  Additionally, in partnership with the Cape Fear Community College Foundation, we have developed the Full Belly Project Technology, Innovation, Service and Agriculture (TISA) scholarship for continuing education in the amount of $10,000.