Lightening the load: How Bath Uni engineer Nav made poverty-busting washing machines for under $30

“A mother or a child doesn’t have to spend 20 hours a week handwashing clothes,” says Nav Sawhney, a Bath University student.

Nav has created a new, manual, portable, washing machine. Together with the Iraq Response Innovation Lab, Oxfam is installing 50 of Nav's machines in an Iraqi refugee camp.

Divya, a woman Nav met in southern India, first sparked the idea when she explained the struggle of washing clothes without a machine. This time-consuming, physical burden is often shouldered by women and girls in developing countries.

Now, Nav's washing machines - which he named Divya after the woman who inspired them - could free up time for women and young girls to pursue education and paid work.

My name is Nav – it means ‘New’ in Punjabi. I’ve always had a passion for making new and innovative things. My dad, before he passed away, was an engineer and he’d take me to air shows and I’d be fascinated with how things work. I’d take apart appliances and try and put things back together. My mum got angry, but it was an inquisitive mind that triggered my thought process.

"I thought - I would love to make something that someone really needs – that would change their life for the better"

I’ve always been taught to be kind and compassionate to people and [value] a shared human existence. That’s always been present in my life, whether that’s been volunteering at a homeless shelter or doing community work with the Scouts.

Studying engineering was a very natural transition for me. Once I’d graduated, I joined a technology company making domestic appliances where I learnt how to design products.

It was an amazing experience but, I thought, I would love to make something that someone really needs. Something that would change their life for the better.

I joined the Engineers Without Borders graduate programme and was sent to southern India to make clean and efficient cooking stoves for a partner organisation called Prakti.

The village that I stayed in didn’t have running water. It had infrequent access to electricity.

Prakti taught me the idea of smart innovation for people who really need it. These are people who handwashed clothes every single day.

I found out that convenience doesn’t have to be just for rich people – it can be for everyone.

A mother or a child doesn’t have to spend 20 hours a week handwashing clothes. And as an engineer, I thought, this must be looked at.

"70% of the world’s population don’t have access to an electric washing machine like you and I. These people need smart innovation."

I used to speak to my next-door neighbour [in India]. She was a woman called Divya. Divya used to complain about spending hours and hours a day cooking and cleaning on her hands and knees when what she wanted to do was go to work and start a business, or educate her child.

She said, ‘my hands hurt all the time and I have skin irritations and my back hurts.’

I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe I can make you a washing machine, Divya. That would be a really interesting thing to do.’

Her eyes lit up and she was like, ‘I’d love that.’
And so that was sort of the penny-drop moment when I thought, maybe I could make a washing machine for Divya.

"Our surveys with women in Iraq have shown they spend up to 20 hours a week washing clothes."

My dad died when I was very young, and I was brought up with women around me, so I understand how important that is. I’m passionate about alleviating the problem of household chores, everyday tasks, unpaid labour.

I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, so I formed a team of engineers... data scientists, programme managers, people that shared the [vision]. People that have an interest in making a washing machine.

"The goal of the washing machine project is to alleviate the burden of hand washing [clothes] for people all over the world. We do this by making a manual – off-the-grid – washing solution that is portable."

What Prakti taught me is that the adoption of a product is really important. Serving [people], being very close to [them], understanding what their problem is before actually making the solution.

When we were making cooking stoves, we would have an idea, then prototype the idea and then put it into the field within three days. It would be a living lab.
The women using it would be able to feed back to us whether they liked it or not.
Whether the chapati would puff enough, or if the pot was too small or too big, the handle too awkward; the sides too hot. I tried to adopt that into ‘The Washing Machine Project.’ We surveyed 500 people in five countries; Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, India and the Philippines.

I studied engineering, so I had nothing to do with humanitarianism, but I always had this passion for humanity, so I undertook a Masters at Bath University – a Masters in Humanitarianism, Conflict and Development.

Creating a movement

We put together a prototype. [It] was a team effort. In March last year, we went out to Iraq, to test this prototype, to find out if people liked it. We spent five days there.

Oxfam and The Innovation Lab funded us to deliver 50 washing machines to an Iraqi refugee camp.

The Innovation Lab is a volunteer-led organisation and so we made all 50 washing machines with 75 volunteers from all over the UK.

We’re trying to create a movement here, where people get behind the story and for me this is surreal because what I wanted to do was make a washing machine for people like Divya. Now we’re getting orders from Syria, from all sorts of people. It’s an interesting time.

We met up with Oxfam and The Innovation Lab and they said that they loved the idea – they wanted to pilot it. The feedback was brilliant.

[We learned] some of the things they wanted. That the average size of a family in an Iraqi camp is nine, with half of those people being under the age of five -- so lots of clothes being dirtied, lots of washing to be done. We took this all into account; they wanted bigger drums, bigger capacity, easier manoeuvring of the washing machine... They didn’t want to bend down. They didn’t want interaction with soap because it caused rashes. They wanted it to be light and portable. We incorporated all that into our design.

The need for a washing machine cheaper than $30

The year in India taught me about designing for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, for people who need it.

It also taught me about costs, and the buying power of women, because unfortunately, this is a task that has disproportionately been placed on women.

And so, at Prakti, we did surveys [on] the buying power of women, and in that area, it was no more than around $30. Anything more, then the women would have to ask for permission from the breadwinner, who would often say no, because [they felt it was] a problem that doesn’t affect the breadwinner.

And so we, in our long-term goal, are pricing our washing machine at $30.

Giving back valuable time

Our surveys have found that women in Iraq spend up to 20 hours a week washing clothes. We believe that using the washing machine, they could wash the same amount of clothes in 20 minutes. So instead of 20 hours, 20 minutes.

Can you imagine if you give back 20 hours to Divya, what she could do with her time? She could have the power to do whatever she wants.

With Oxfam in Iraq, we’re partnering up with local mechanics, teaching them how to repair these washing machines, so they can do it themselves.

As we grow bigger, more partnerships occur, then we can think about more sustainable ways to source materials. This is at the front of our minds. And the offcuts of wood are being recycled; they’re being made into shelves, things like that.

We’re in conversations with Iraq Innovation Lab right now to make another 150 washing machines, that will be locally made, to empower local engineers and the local economy.

“My hopes and dreams are to have a washing machine project in every country in the world where it is needed.”

I think people are scared of failure. People have ideas but they’re scared of [carrying them out] because they don’t know how it’ll work out. It doesn’t make sense. I am an engineer with no humanitarian experience, going to meetings with the UN, Oxfam… saying that I have this idea. Just because I believe that this is needed. There is a need.

The Innovation Lab is a volunteer organisation, so if people think they can contribute; engineers, humanitarians, if they like the approach, it would be of great help. It’s a great cause, a great project and we’d love for other people to be involved.

The world is a good place and my hope is that we will continue this trajectory where, at the end of it, everyone is equal.

As COVID-19 escalates, millions living in cramped and unhygienic conditions - with limited access to healthcare - desperately need help to stay safe. We are helping people minimise the risk of the coronavirus infection by providing them with accurate information and advice in local languages. Our teams are delivering clean water, handwashing facilities and soap to those most at risk. Donate now to support Oxfam's response to the coronavirus pandemic.