In 2016 Nav Sawhney was taking a sabbatical from his engineering career in the UK, volunteering with the charity Engineers without Borders in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Whilst living there he struck up a friendship with his neighbour Divya.
“When I would come back from work, Divya and I used to catch up on the day’s activities in front of her house. We would spend hours in the evening talking about life and our dreams. While we caught up, she would hand wash her clothes. I was always so shocked at how long and how much effort it would take to conduct the relatively unproductive task. She spends up to 20 hours a week hand washing clothes on her hands and knees and uses around 40 litres of water per cycle. She would complain of back pain, joint pain and skin irritation. She would scrape, scrub, and smash each individual piece of clothing. As an Engineer, I thought this was an incredibly inefficient use of her time and energy. She could use this time educating Sukumar or owning her own business.”
This isn’t an uncommon issue, 70% of the world’s population lack access to a washing machine. Clothes washing is a heavily gendered activity with women often spending many hours of the day hand-washing clothes for their family – preventing many from accessing education or financial independence. In many rural villages, like Kuilapalayam where Divya lives, there is also a restricted electricity supply with power cuts a frequent occurrence.
Nav decided to use his skills as an engineer to set up a social enterprise dedicated to supplying water-saving manual washing machines to support low-income communities in the Global South. When he suggested the idea to Divya, her eyes lit up, and she said she wanted one “as soon as possible.”
Inspired by his friend, Nav went on to found the Washing Machine Project by developing an innovative manual washing machine which he named the Divya. It does not require an electrical supply, has a drum capacity of 5kg and only uses 20 litres of water per cycle.
The Washing Machine Project has now worked across the world including in Iraq where, in 2019, it carried out further research looking into clothes washing habits in Iraqi Kurdistan and the suitability of a manually powered, portable washing machine as a means of improving quality of life in camps for internally displaced people and refugees. The findings showed a real need for effective solutions to save time and ease access and improve health outcomes, with only 40% of people reporting they had access to an electric washing machine. The impact on health of frequent hand washing was also apparent with 77% of respondents saying they suffered from dry skin and many also having issues with their eyes due to the amount of detergent used in handwashing clothes.
That year, The Washing Machine Project partnered with Iraq Response Innovation Lab and Oxfam to install 50 Divyas which have helped displaced people living in refugee camps in Kurdish and Federal Iraq.
Moving forward, the organization plans to install Divya Two, an updated prototype, to several nations by 2021 and has received orders for a pilot with Plan International and Care International in Jordan and Iraq.
As well providing access to effective, resource efficient washing machines, The Washing Machine Project also run educational projects running workshops on the redistribution of domestic work for students in schools and university. The team is also constantly looking at how it can improve the design of their machines to make them easier to adopt by the communities it works to support.
In a few years the Washing Machine Project has grown into a social enterprise which is partnering with some of the world’s biggest NGOs to ensure people have access to these essential devices. This journey all started with the long conversations Nav and Divya would have talking about their hopes for the future. As Nav says “I am accountable to her to make sure this project is a success.”