It was on a trip to India that Nav Sawhney was first inspired to come up with a creation to help women in poverty.
The 29-year-old engineering student was on a placement in the rural village of Kallipalayam, which had limited access to water and electricity. Every day he would pass his next-door neighbour Divya, and see her hunched over a bucket, scrubbing clothes.
‘I walked past this woman’s house every day, and every day she was washing clothes,’ Nav says.
‘We got chatting and she told me how her back hurt and she showed me the rash on her hands. I thought there must be something I could do, and set my mind to finding a solution.’
A modern washing machine was out of the question for Divya, 30, who does not have regular electricity, so Nav knew he’d have to be creative.
He says, ‘Seventy per cent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to an electric washing machine… I realised if I could make a low-cost washing machine for Divya, which she could operate by turning a crank, it would save her so much time. That’s time that could be spent pursuing an education or paid work.’
Divya became a good friend of Nav’s while he was in the village, and she was over the moon when he told her his plan. ‘Her eyes lit up,’ he says. She loved it.’
Watching the mum-of-two struggling reminded Nav of his own childhood growing up in London. Nav’s dad Avtar died suddenly from heart failure when Nav was eight, leaving his mum Mohini, now 68, to care for three young children.
‘I remember Mum toiling away all day,’ he recalls. ‘As soon as she came home from her job in the civil service, there was cooking, cleaning and laundry to do. My siblings and I would try and help out around the house, but we were only young.’
Nav had always had an inquisitive mind and, growing up, he would take kitchen appliances apart and try to put them back together again.
‘Dad was an engineer too, and he’d encourage me to figure out how things worked,’ he remembers. ‘It would drive Mum nuts, but I was fascinated by the mechanics behind the gadgets.’
Nav went on to study engineering at Queen Mary University of London, and later joined Engineers Without Borders UK, which encourages people to find solutions to the hardships of people all around the world.
It was through Engineers Without Borders that he met Divya and came up with the idea of building the hand-crank washing machine.
He formed a team of specialists and put his head together with fellow engineers, anthropologists and data scientists, and they created a prototype.
The prototype was then trialled at the Response Innovation Lab in Iraq, led by Oxfam, which provides funding for new innovations that improve poor people’s lives.
In 2019, as part of his research for the washing machine, Nav visited Iraq and met families living in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country.
‘People have been through so much hardship,’ he says. ‘I sat with families in their tents and often there was a father or a brother or an uncle missing, taken away by ISIS and never seen again.’
Nav spent time learning what families’ needs were, and carried out research which showed that women were spending as long as 20 hours a week washing clothes.
‘The average size of a family in a camp is nine, with half being under the age of five – so lots of dirty clothes, lots of washing to be done. We took this all into account; people wanted drums with a bigger capacity and they didn’t want to bend down.
They didn’t want interaction with soap because it caused rashes. They wanted it to be light and portable. We incorporated all that into our design.’
Nav and his team created a washing machine from wood and plastic costing just £24. The machine, which Nav named after Divya, has a drum capacity of 5kg but only uses 10 litres of water per cycle, as opposed to the 30 litres used by the average electric washing machine.
‘We believe that using the washing machine, women could wash the same amount of clothes in 20 minutes instead of 20 hours! Can you imagine if you gave back 20 hours to Divya, what she could do with her time? She could have the power to do whatever she wants,’ he says.
In February, 50 washing machines were distributed by Oxfam to refugee camps in Mosul as a pilot project.
‘I think the burden placed on women is so unfair, so seeing that first-hand at home with Mum and then trying to be able to equalise that in some way is something I’m really passionate about.
‘My mother is really proud of me, she’s my biggest supporter. She is what drives me. I see her struggles in other women’s struggles.’
And Nav’s dad, who was an engineer, would have been proud too.
‘During the Partition of India in 1947, he became a refugee after fleeing his home with nothing but the clothes on his back. It’s up to us to help people along the journey and the refugees that I’ve met in Iraq have had it the worst.
‘Unimaginable things have happened to them, things that are really hard to fathom. Becoming a refugee can happen to anyone,’ he says. ‘We’re put on this planet for a short period of time, and our impact on other people’s lives is what matters the most. It’s up to everyone around the world to help.’
The scale of inequality worldwide
– According to Oxfam’s latest research, the world’s 22 richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa.
– Women and girls are putting in 12.5billion hours of unpaid care work every day, such as looking after children and the elderly, which amounts to a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8trillion a year.
– Women, especially those living in poverty, do more than three quarters of all unpaid care work.
– 42% of women across the globe are outside the paid workforce because of unpaid care responsibilities compared to just 6% of men.
– To donate to Oxfam’s coronavirus appeal click here