Written by Meher Vepari

29-year-old Navjot Sawhney’s innovation strives for worldwide equality. After relinquishing a coveted engineering job at Dyson UK, he, alongside dedicated volunteers, puts his heart and soul into achieving just that. 

In 2016, Nav spent his sabbatical building cookstoves in the dusty Tamilian village, Kuilapalayam. He’d notice his neighbour Divya, hunched and toiling over a soapy bucket 20 hours a week, handwashing clothes. She suffered constantly from backache and cracked skin. Nav was shocked at her plight, being used to the effortlessness of a machine that does it all for you. 

Nav found that about 70% of India’s population doesn’t have a washing machine. The task of handwashing laundry is “disproportionately placed on women”.  Instead of self-care, education, childcare or work, many spend 2 working days-per-week on the task, resulting in chronic back problems and skin conditions. 

He made a decision that reshaped his life: he would build Divya a washing machine. Thus, The Washing Machine Project was born.

But it wasn’t simple; unreliable electricity supply, water scarcity and financial constraints were huge obstacles. Off-the-grid went without saying. Reduced water consumption from the conventional 30 litres to 20 makes the machine ideal for water-sparse situations. The cycle takes 15 minutes. The spending restrictions of many rural women were a key factor too. “No one in the world today is looking at [washing machines] from a development and humanitarian context,” Nav said, “which means that no one in the world is keeping in mind people like Divya. We make the product with off-the-shelf ingredients so it’s suitable for the developed context. We’re looking at recycled materials and how to limit waste. It’ll help with the cost as well.” 

Priced around Rs.2400, the machine is called Divya.

Throughout, communication is crucial. “The beneficiaries are at the heart of what we do. It’s always user led; we do so much research”. TWMP is a volunteer-led social enterprise, happy to take on anyone willing to help. Nav greatly appreciates the team. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without [them]; highly skilled, passionate people, willing to help and make the world a better place.”

India was just the start. Partnering with the charity Oxfam and the Iraq Innovation Lab, TWMP took their innovations to Iraqi Internally Displaced Persons camps, where they’ve already distributed 50 machines. Talking to 79 Yazidi families made the group realise the weighty significance of clean clothes. “These people have dignity and pride. They had electric washing machines back at home. They had everything they ever needed. Now they’re in a refugee camp and they have to survive. It’s up to us to alleviate that burden.”

Nav urges anyone inspired to make a change to just start. “Don’t wait for someone else to fix it. And if you can’t, bring someone along who can. Among the younger generation there’s a growing effort to make the world a better place.” says Nav. His results outweigh the struggle. “It’s really fulfilling. But it also makes me feel like I shouldn’t stop; I should keep going.”

Alongside TWMP, Nav works for Jaguar Land Rover and studies Humanitarianism at university. The startup hasn’t been easy. “I’m still finding it really hard. It’s a battle every single day.” His motivation? His mother, and Divya. “I owe it to [Divya], and I owe it to the women that I speak to around the world that are asking for this kind of innovation”; he feels accountable. “That’s what motivates me every day.” 

Nav hopes Divya will see the Divya soon; Covid uncertainty looms. Still, their work continues. A team, currently in Cameroon, gather socially-distanced feedback, while others improve the prototype. Nothing has stopped TWMP from achieving their goals so far; a pandemic won’t either. 

If you’re interested in volunteering, donating or investing, or know someone who might be, visit https://thewashingmachineproject.org/. You can find them on social media @thewashingmachineproject