During an International Placement with Engineers Without Borders UK, Navjot was inspired by his neighbour, Divya, and turned his attention to creating single, standalone, off the grid washing solutions that are affordable, portable and accessible for everyone, everywhere. He’s since completed an MSc Humanitarianism, Conflict & Development at the University of Bath. He is currently serving as a member-elected trustee on the Engineers Without Borders UK Board of Trustees. 

Tell us about you and The Washing Machine Project.

I am the founder of The Washing Machine Project. Our mission is to alleviate the burden of hand-washing clothes. Women in many refugee camps and underdeveloped nations spend many hours hand-washing clothes, time that can be spent schooling or working to bring the family out of poverty.  70% of the world’s population lacks access to electric washing machines. Our off-the-grid washing solutions are affordable, portable and accessible for everyone, everywhere.

Would you describe yourselves as ‘impact-led’ or driven by social/ environmental justice? Why? How? 

I think it is all of the above. We are very much impact-driven and measure the actual impact we create. We identified a problem often overlooked in development agencies or charities where the focus may lie with the immediate relief of food, sanitation, and water. The problem is that of unpaid labour, placed disproportionately on women in poorer countries or refugee camps. In countries like India, women spend 20 hours (2 ½ working days) a week washing clothes on their hands and knees. Scrubbing each piece in lakes, rivers or streams causes skin irritation, chronic back and joint pain. We found that 70% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to an electric washing machine. So, we created a solution that saves 75% of the time and 50% water, reducing the hours of interacting with detergent and soap massively. This is a very measurable impact. However, there are also meaningful indirect social and environmental benefits. Freeing up time for schooling and business can help empower women, which can lift a community out of poverty.

What is The Washing Machine Project doing to mainstream globally responsible engineering? 

Advocacy is a crucial element of our work. In the UK, laundrettes were considered essential during the pandemic. So why isn’t this prioritised in refugee camps or for the developing nations? We are engaging with parliamentary groups to talk and raise awareness about the importance of technical innovation for humanitarian settings.

We have seen coverage by mainstream media around the world and are working with major companies to help fundraise and deliver our important work. Corporate Social Responsibility is helping to lead true change in times where greenwashing is being called out.

What is your organisation doing differently from its competitors?  

The Washing Machine Project is looking, beyond basic needs (water, food, shelter), at how engineering can practically improve lives with sustainable long term solutions. Refugee camps aren’t going anywhere, research data has shown that an average refugee camp is 17 years old.

We are very data-driven and have been interviewing 100’s of families on the ground.  The Washing Machine Project makes sure that our solutions are sustainable, solving direct and indirect problems and offering benefits to the communities. We’re not stopping at washing machines; we have started to look at off-grid refrigeration, for example.

How has the Engineers Without Borders movement supported the development, growth and achievement of The Washing Machine Project?

Without Engineers Without Borders UK, The Washing Machine Project would not exist. My time on the International Placement literally changed my life. It was the inspiration to create change and to do something practical with my skills. They were also able to plug The Washing Machine Project into a really strong network to move forward. I’m now lucky enough to sit on the Board of Trustees.

The culture in organisations working in globally responsible engineering/that are impact-driven is often very different to that in mainstream engineering. How would you describe your organisation’s culture? Do you see a link between your organisation’s culture and the change you’re trying to create?

We are very mission-driven. It’s not by accident that we have taken on over 150 volunteers from all walks of life and 11 countries. Everyone is frustrated by this problem. Right now, we have 25 volunteers in nine different times zones, six different nationalities – from undergraduates to retirees. We are collaborative to help enact change. We support people who are frustrated by their current working situations and nurture them to drive change and make a difference. Ideas are always welcome and autonomy is given. Now that we have significant funding, we can take on more full-time staff.

What do you think will be critical in reaching the tipping point? 

Everyone needs to change how we work. It is all about inspiring and compelling engineers through storytelling to take action, empowering them to create change. I see students and recent graduates looking for experience. This means upskilling and connecting them to the network will be a crucial step to take. Engineers Without Borders UK are critical for this, connecting the different networks and getting engineers out of their silos. It’s the collaboration with other sectors and groups like researchers, social scientists, finance that creates the critical mass that will pull everyone together.

What are the main challenges to creating a globally responsible organisation? How are you navigating these challenges?

I think one of the main challenges is funding – being globally responsible costs money. It might mean sacrificing profits, doing more development or adding material costs. Another challenge is achieving a mindset shift of habitual behaviour and thinking entrenched in larger organisations, such as ‘this is how we’ve always done it’.

Globally responsible engineering also doesn’t just mean sustainability. It means making working environments welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds. This thought is part of our mission to become equitable. We deliberately hire from a diverse talent pool to create a safe and nurturing environment that allows for all kinds of innovative ideas to address the worlds’ most pressing problems. Finally, when we come up against larger companies and their agendas who wish to fund us, we must stay true to our core values.

What advice would you give organisations trying to mainstream globally responsible engineering? 

  • Keep up with the times. This shift is happening now, so companies are at risk of being left behind if they don’t. Some organisations are accelerating and growing because of their green thinking and diversity strategy.
  • Engage your staff. My advice is to take a long hard look within the organisation, speak to new starters and find out why they want to work with you.
  • Good ideas can come from anywhere. Companies should be fostering a safe space for people to voice their thoughts and ensure the creation of a culture of inclusivity and empowerment.
  • Also, observe the wider industry to see who is successfully shifting their mindset. It’s crucial to approach change from a holistic perspective.

Navjot Sawhney, the founder of The Washing Machine Project and aerospace engineering graduate, grew up in London. His father’s experience as a refugee during the 1947 partition had a critical influence on Nav, shaping his desire to help people fleeing conflict.

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