Navjot Sawhney, an engineer from London, created an off-the-grid washing machine for people in refugee camps and poorer regions of the world. His grassroots social enterprise – The Washing Machine Project – is on a mission to alleviate the pain of women in low-income communities. The end goal is to empower them to take charge of their time and lives. Consequently, the innovative solution will contribute to saving water.
Handwashing clothes is a back-breaking task that consumes a lot of water and time. The process involves a ridiculous amount of manual effort for fetching the water, washing and rinsing clothes. Refugees seeking shelter in camps spend up to 8 hours per week doing hand washing clothes. They consume up to 40 litres per washing cycle that causes extreme physical pain to them. While water scarcity is a prominent global issue, handwashing clothes add to the never-ending burden of domestic chores on women and young girls of the family.
The Washing Machine Project is a grassroots social enterprise that is on a mission to alleviate the pain of women in refugee camps and low-income communities, thus empowering them to take charge of their time and lives. Through a low-tech and low-cost washing machine, the project is helping to save water.
The low-tech Hand-cranked Washing Machine
Sawhney innovated a single, standalone, low-tech, and off-the-grid washing machine that is affordable and accessible for everyone. While it reduces the washing cycle time to 30 minutes from 60-80 mins, it also reduces the amount of water used per washing cycle to 10 litres instead of 20-40 litres. The machine promises to save a significant amount of time that can be put towards more productive uses. Besides, it addresses the water-scarce conditions in refugee camps.
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The hand-cranked washing machine doesn’t depend on electricity for washing and spin-drying. “My sole agenda with this machine is to pull the women out of time and labour-intensive grind to give more time to themselves and their family,” shares Sawhney. The Divya washing machine is portable, using off-the-shelf parts that allow it to be used in, delivered to, and fixed in remote areas. It has appropriate modes for wash, spin and drying, which deliver an effective wash. As a result, it eliminates the need for a user’s skin to come into contact with detergent and save them from health problems.
How Navjot discovered his true calling in serving low-income communities?
Navjot grew up with a curious mindset and would be fascinated with air crafts and machines. After completing his education at the University of Bath, he landed his first job at Dyson. He was involved in making designs of vacuum cleaners that he realised was specifically for ”rich people.” This realisation got him thinking as to how could he utilise his knowledge and skillset to build something accessible and affordable. Navjot quit his job and moved to South India to explore his opportunities. While navigating the rural pockets of southern India to build clean and efficient cookstoves, he became friends with a woman, Divya. Through this friendship, he discovered the ground realities of how great a burden unpaid labour puts on women. How it obstructs them to pursue paid work and education. All of this puts the well-being of women at risk.
Navjot closely observed Divya’s routine to conclude that she was spending up to 20 hours per week on handwashing clothes. This left her with little time for herself. Navjot realised that handwashing clothes beget numerous health risks such as malaria, cholera, and other skin infections. These observations compelled him to set up The Washing Machine Project in 2018. He shares, “I had a fantastic experience of learning about the importance of innovation for the people in the bottom-of-the-pyramid in society.”
Pilot Tests conducted in Refugee Camps of Iraq and other Countries
Navjot travelled to around 12 countries, including Iraq, Jordan, India, Kenya, etc, to conduct thorough research for his ambitious project. He would go door to door questioning people on their washing habits including their time and water consumption. The team spoke to 150 families to get a fair idea of how a mundane task such as washing clothes could affect the lives of women. He recounts his experience of visiting Iraq, “Iraq evokes a disturbing picture in one’s mind. The conflicted region is still thriving on the ground of patriarchy.” “I remember speaking to a man from a family about our washing machine. He said that the design is so easy that even I could wash clothes. This was a special moment for me,” adds Sawhney.
The Washing Machine Project carried out a 50-machine pilot with the first Divya model in the refugee camps in Iraq. The pilot concluded a 75% reduction in time and a 50% reduction in water consumption. The following pilots proved Divya to be more effective than an electric washing machine over an hour-long delicate cycle. It uses 30 litres compared to the electric washing machine’s 105 litres. Moreover, it is capable of removing all the stains such as that of oil, puree, etc. Navjot explains how pilots have been a key to developing their cost-effective washing machines. They allowed the team to maintain a user-centred approach and learn from the beneficiaries to continually develop its solution.
Way Forward for The Washing Machine Project
The Washing Machine Project aims to become the “Apple of the humanitarian world.” It wants to innovate things for the poor people continuously. Navjot chips in, “We should design solutions that empower communities and promote a better and more equal world for everyone.” He has already secured a fundraising agreement with a company called Electrocomponents. The agreement will allow him to develop the project, roll it out to more countries, and recruit full-time staff members. More pilot projects would be rolled out in Jordan and Vanuatu this year. Navjot plans on tying up with international organisations and agencies to distribute the machines in more remote areas across the globe. Over the next three years, they plan to distribute 7,05,000 machines in 12 countries. One of the other plans is to empower the people from poorer strata through education and enable them to manufacture and purchase the washing machine.
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