Greenkode interviews Nav Sawhney about his company the Washing Machine Project
by Blue Fletcher/9th-August-2020
Nav Sawhney was an undergraduate when he first thought of the idea of supplying hand powered Washing Machines to poor developing regions. Here we interview him and discover his journey in getting there.
So Nav, I’m very eager to hear to hear more about The Washing Machine Project (TWMP). Do you want to give us a quick introduction into what it is that you do?
Yeah, Blue thank you for having me on. My name is Nav, it means ‘new’ in Punjabi and I’m the Founder of TWMP. We are the only social enterprise in the world today making manual washing machines, that save time, water, and effort for people who handwash clothes – specifically for the humanitarian and development sector.
That’s amazing and I’ve heard that you were heavily inspired by your friend Divya. Just tell us a bit more about who she is and how the idea came about.
Yeah, that’s a really good question, really valid. Its always really important to understand the motivations of why things have started in the world. Having an engineering background from a very young age. I was kind of obsessed with seeing how other things worked and I’d be very curious to understand how objects would function. My dad was an aero-space engineer and he’d take me to air-shows, I’d be fascinated with these big aircrafts in the sky. I’d come home and take the toolbox out of the cupboard and take apart appliances. That used to really anger my mum because I would never know how to put those appliances back together again, but I’d love to see how things work. So, studying engineering was a very natural transition for me at university and I was lucky enough to land a graduate job at one of the best technology companies in the world. It was a dream job, I was really happy. Three years in, I decided to take a sabbatical and quit my job. You can imagine coming from a South-Asian community, going back to my mum, and saying ‘I’m going to quit my job and do something else’ – that conversation didn’t go down well.
I can imagine, yeah.
I wanted my engineering to do better you know, to help people, to go further, to have more of an impact on people who really need it. There’s a lot of suffering in the world, so I wanted to help. I volunteered for a social enterprise called PRAKTI, in South India. I did that for one year, I was living in a very rural village. The village had really humble surroundings – limited access to electricity, limited access to water. [It was] very hot, so storing food was a problem, cooking [and] gas was a problem. My next-door neighbour was a lady called Divya and she was the only lady on the street, if not the village, that spoke English. Perfect English, that she learnt in high school but never used since.
She got married at the age of 17, had two children and was a stay at home mum. She wanted to work but never had the time or the resources. So Divya became a very good friend of mine, my best friend. We would catch up on the day’s activities, catch up on life and all the struggles that we faced. Everyday I’d see Divya doing some sort of unpaid work – whether it was cooking, cleaning, washing the children or fetching wood to cook the food. There was always something that she was doing. There was one evening where I saw her manually washing her clothes, by hand. [She was] on her knees, scrubbing each piece of cloth, interacting with Dettol and detergent and soap – causing skin irritation and back pain. That’s when I promised her a manual washing machine – I said ‘Divya, I can fix this for you – I can make you a manual washing machine’. Her eyes lit up and we haven’t looked back since.
Video of the washing machine in action: Nav demonstrating the use of the washing machine powered by hand!
That’s amazing, so what kind of impact do you want your washing machines to have on women in similar situations to Divya?
If you are a woman in the world today, you will be disproportionately affected by unpaid labour. Women in the world today are cooking, cleaning and childbearing more than men – no matter where you are. If we look at the development sector, this problem is exasperated. Someone like Divya is spending more than 20 hours per week just on handwashing clothes. That’s 2.5 working days. If you compare that to an equivalent of a man, he spends roughly around 2 hours- that’s not fair. It needs to change, and it blocks development for women, and it hampers on growth in the world. We know and we have seen with the pandemic, that women are further being disproportionately affected. They are being required to gather more water, queue in areas where there might be spread of disease, domestic violence is up, hygiene problems with sanitary pads is difficult – and hard to source. Women need the equal opportunities to men and that’s TWMP is- we are giving the equal opportunities. We are giving time back to people like Divya, to better spend on things that they choose to spend it on – like education, starting a business or childbearing. That’s the impact that we have. Our washing machine saves ¾ of the time, ½ the water, limits back and joint pain and skin irritation.
Brilliant. Moving on to your work with Oxfam, I know you’ve been working with them closely for just over a year now. What is it that you’ve done with them exactly?
In February 2019, we were lucky enough to go to Iraq to trial one of our prototypes – in camps in Kurdistan with the Yazidi refugees. The feedback was fantastic. The average size of a family in Iraq, in camps is 9, half of that family would be under the age of five. So lots of clothes being washed every day. We got lots of different insights – people wanted large washing machines, to stand up whilst using and wanted easy access to water. Were lucky enough to be collaborated with Oxfam and the Iraq Innovation Lab who seed funded this project. Up until then it was self-funded, through my pocket. Oxfam game us a grant and said ‘We love the project; we love the work people are doing. We want 50 of these washing machines distributed in camps’. So, in March this year this year we distributed 50 and we’re getting real-time feedback on that.
What this has done is given us areal insight into how things worked, how the machine will be adopted and were going into Jordan in November with the United Nations. It’s a really exciting time for TWMC.
A congratulations is in order for already raising 78% of your £10k target. Where can people find you to donate to this cause?
Yeah, we’ve been really lucky with our fundraising. Just yesterday we had an anonymous donation of £500.
That’s great, wow.
Its really supported by the community. We are fundraising through Just Giving, you can reach us there – just type in ‘The Washing Machine Project’ and it will come up. You can follow our socials as well as our website.
Images above: Nav in a refugee camp demonstrating his machine and below the inspiration for the machine his friend Divya.
You mention that your going to Jordan later this year. So, I’m sure you have a lot of exciting thigs going on – what kind of things are those?
Its insane, [I have] three podcasts booked for this week, two speaking events.
We have a United Nations meeting in a couple of weeks to implement in Jordan. Were launching our ‘Kitchens For Causes’ Program next week. This is partnering up with kitchen appliance companies and [they are] giving us donations. We want TWMP to be in Jordan, grow in Iraq, expand in India, in Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil. We’ve had orders from South America to North East Africa so it’s a really exciting time. We need a lot of help and it a really interesting time.
Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, those are the questions. Its been great to hear what you guys have been up to. If you want to give a shout out to your website or any other places online that you’ll be.
I just want to say thank you very much to the listener, wherever you are in the world listening to this. It’s really important to make an impact and be ethical with every kind of decision you make. That’s really important and worth saying. Especially within the younger generation we feel quite scared to make a difference or be different. I’m here to say that those kinds of time have changed and it’s really important to really act on those ethical thoughts that you have in your mind. You can support TWMP by volunteering your time, donating, or advertising/publicising our work. You can follow us on ‘The Washing Machine Project’ on all social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. I’m really open to conversation and id love to hear what your thoughts are.
Great, thank you very much.