This manual washing machine is designed to help refugees clean their clothes

Nav Sawhney’s design aims to provide a low-cost, lightweight option for keeping up with domestic chores.

A manual washing machine, designed to help refugees and communities without access to power, has found a new audience during the cost of living crisis.

Nav Sawhney and his team founded the Washing Machine Project in 2018, with refugees and those living in homes without electricity in mind. The aim was to create a machine that cut washing cycle times in half and reduce effort of operation.

Sawhney explains how the original idea was influenced by observations formed throughout his early professional career. After studying aerospace engineering at Queen Mary University, Sawhney was accepted onto a graduate programme in Dyson’s research and innovation department.

Nav Sawhney

“I realised three years into my role that I was just making vacuum cleaners for rich people, and I was getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that my engineering was providing solutions for people who already have everything,” he says.

After quitting his job, he started working for NGO Engineers Without Borders UK in southern India to make cooking stoves. Here, he was introduced to a new design process.

Sawhney says, “How it worked was on Monday we’d have an idea, on Tuesday we’d prototype that idea, on Wednesday we’d put the prototype into the field with potential users, get feedback on the Thursday and have a new design by Friday.”

According to Sawhney, this “living lab” allowed workers to test many different prototypes in a short space of time. It was during this busy time that Sawhney met Divya, a single mother of two who lived next door.

“I saw that she’d spend hours and hours a day hand washing clothes and she’d complain about skin irritation and back pain,” says Sawhney. Having been brought up by his mother and sisters after the death of his father, he explains he was aware of the hard work involved in running a household from a young age.

Nav and Divya in India

“I promised [Divya] a manual washing machine, so I came back to the UK, got a bunch of friends around my kitchen table, and started the Washing Machine Project,” says Sawhney. Shortly after his return to the UK, Sawhney and his team engineered the first washing machine prototype.

In that same year (2018), he started a master’s degree in humanitarianism, conflict and development at the University of Bath. When a course mate who was working in Iraq heard about the project, he invited him to bring his prototype over to the refugee camps there to test it.

Nav and his prototype in Iraq

Taking influence from his design process in India, he interviewed 79 families from five refugee camps and, according to Sawhney, the feedback was all positive.

“We’ve not really changed our methodology since then,” he says. “Talking to the end users and beneficiaries of our machines is still very important to us.”

Since Iraq, the Washing Machine Project has partnered with charities like Oxfam, Save the Children, and UNHCR to distribute the machines to where they are needed most. However, as the market for this kind of product is growing, Sawhney and the team saw a need to improve the machine’s design.

The Washing Machine project has now teamed up with University of Bristol engineering students to work on the latest developments in the design of its manual washing machine.

The team surveyed over 3000 families in 17 countries on their washing habits in an attempt to improve the design. A key finding from the research was that the washing machine needed to be larger with a 5kg drum capacity to cater for the fact that families average at six people in developing countries. Sawhney says the team surveyed some households that had as many as 13 people.

“A lot of people like the fact that it had a spin-dry mechanism as well which spins at 500 revolutions per minute,” Sawhney adds. “Some of the new design changes aim to make to machine more stable but lighter weight.”

The improved version will also feature an agitator – a mechanism that twists back and forth, rubbing against clothes to remove stains – to improve the quality of the wash and strive to reduce the overall time and effort that the user spends on a wash cycle, according to Sawhney. The newly added vertical drum contributes to this goal, as it means users should find it easier to turn the crank of the machine.

The newest version of the machine

As interest in the project increased, Sawhney says he has started to receive inquiries from people in the UK who have been hit by the cost of living crisis. According to Sawhney, around 20% of the company’s requests are from people in the UK struggling to afford bills. This has resulted in a partnership between The Washing Machine Project and Hillingdon council in London.

At present, 150 machines have been distributed across 12 countries, which the team estimates have impacted over 1300 lives, but these numbers are set to rise.

Sawhney says, “We’ve had around 3000 orders and interests from 27 countries now so we’re scaling up production. Hopefully by the end of August next year we will be distributing 12,000 washing machines over 27 countries.”

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