A washing machine for Divya
Inspired by his experience with Engineers Without Borders UK, Nav Sawhney tells the story of the birth of The Washing Machine Project, demonstrating how innovative engineering can improve lives around the world.
After university, I was working at Dyson. About three years into my graduate programme, I was contemplating where my engineering skills were taking me. I wanted to apply my skills in an area where they really mattered, so that people benefitted. So, I quit and joined the Engineers Without Borders international programme.
I went to South India to work on making clean and efficient cookstoves. Half the world’s population use solid fuel to cook their food. This is a very unhealthy way of cooking, because you breathe in a lot of smoke, which can lead to various diseases. Prakti, the social enterprise I was working with, is trying to alleviate this problem. Learning about the issue and then figuring out how to solve it was a really eye-opening experience for me.
I was living in a rural village with limited access to water and electricity. The water was only switched on twice a day, at six in the morning and six in the evening. I always used to miss my water switch-on times. But I had a lovely next door neighbour, Divya, who became a good friend of mine. She would switch on the water pump for me, to make sure that I had water.
Whenever we’d catch up at the end of a long day, I’d sit in front of her house and she’d be doing all sorts of labour-intensive tasks, such as cooking, and washing dishes and clothes by hand. She’d do this for the entire evening.
Nav is founder of The Washing Machine Project, aiming to limit the burden of hand washing clothes.
The penny drop
It occurred to me that I could make a washing machine for Divya. When I told her about this idea, her eyes lit up. She loved it. And that’s when the idea for The Washing Machine Project was born.
I came home and started a social enterprise, with the aim of alleviating the burden of hand washing clothes for everyone, everywhere. It affects 70 per cent of the world’s population. Often, women and children spend up to 20 hours a week hand washing clothes. They do it on their hands and knees, they use 40 litres of water, and they get joint pains and skin irritation.
Since I founded the project in 2018, I’ve put together a team of 10 volunteers – professionals that are interested in making the world a better place. Some of whom I’ve found through the Engineers Without Borders UK network.
We’ve travelled to five countries and interviewed four hundred families, asking about their washing habits, because we wanted to use a data-centred approach. It’s been a really fantastic experience.
We took a prototype out to Iraq in March and people loved it. It’s portable, it uses no more than 10 litres of water, and you can rinse, wash and dry your clothes in 15 minutes.
In partnership with Oxfam, we’re delivering 50 prototypes in Iraq in December 2019.
Engineering for the bottom of the pyramid
Engineers Without Borders UK has absolutely changed my life. The organisation has had an incredible influence on me. Six years ago, when I graduated, you did an engineering degree and you did a few modules, then you went to a careers fair and the companies there were Boeing or Airbus or Rolls-Royce or BAE systems – companies creating products that have a questionable impact on the Earth.
It used to be that you were persuaded as a young engineer that these were the only companies worth applying to. So you’d find yourself in a row making a missile or something similar.
This happened to me. Then Engineers Without Borders UK came along and changed my path.
They got me thinking laterally and globally. The idea of engineering for the bottom of the pyramid – for people who really need it – has really changed the way I go about my life.
Nav is now a trustee, elected by our membership to represent their interests in our governance.
Bursting the bubble
The engineering community has some massive challenges ahead of it.
Becoming more inclusive is vital; whether it be women, people of colour, minority groups in engineering.
Another challenge for engineering is that it needs to be interesting to people. Engineering is fixing boilers, making spaceships that go to the moon, and everything in between.
My special interest is in humanitarianism: conflict and development and helping people who are who are moving around the world. The world is facing a massive refugee crisis. We need smart engineering skills to be applied in order to alleviate the burden for these people.
It’s really important for the community to drive globally responsible engineering. You don’t even have to be an engineer to help make change happen. You can see that with the plastic revolution, the David Attenborough effect. Campaigns and interest from the public really drive what engineers are doing; it starts from grassroots organisations.
We need to change the conversation so that it’s not just about the here and now or your specific bubble, but 50 to 100 years time and further afield. And the environment of people who are less well off.
We need engineers in the rooms of policymakers and government officials who are making the decisions. We need engineering skills and expertise on the ground and among the decision makers.
It’s really easy to get engrossed in our daily lives, but engineering has effects on people all over the planet. We should consider that every single day.