A washing machine for Divya

Moved by his friend’s plight, a London-born Sikh engineer has developed a manual washing machine

It took London-born Sikh engineer Nav Sawhney just a year in Puducherry to realise that his calling was to use his engineering skills to help those at the bottom of the pyramid. He is now close to releasing a hand-cranked washing machine that will save hours and 75% of the water used by conventional hand-washing.

Born to Indian immigrants in the U.K., 28-year-old Mr. Sawhney took a sabbatical from his job in Dyson’s innovation department to “make his engineering do more for the people that need it”. And so, he travelled to India in 2016-17 and spent a year in Puducherry.

Mr Sawhney said in an interview. “I was living next to a really impoverished family — I was basically living with them. There was a lady called Divya. She was the only lady on the street who spoke English. She was my friend. She was 30 and already had three kids.” Mr Sawhney said in an interview.

Washing woes

“We sat for hours in front of her house catching up on the day’s activities and she would spend those hours washing clothes by hand,” Mr. Sawhney recalled. “They faced very simple problems. At night, Sukumar, Divya’s son, would have to study for his exams, but didn’t have any lights. He used the torch on my phone to study.”

That’s where the idea for a hand-cranked washing machine that didn’t need electricity was born.

The solution Mr Sawhney developed is a 5.5 kg hand-cranked washing machine that can wash 10 kg of clothes per cycle. To put that in context, most electronic washing machines can handle a range of 7.5-12 kg of clothes per cycle. The machine has a wash phase, clean phase, and a dry phase. It runs all three phases — an entire cycle of washing clothes — in 15 minutes.

According to Mr Sawhney, his manual washing machine uses only 10 litres of water per cycle. However, the most important issue he was trying to address was the impact such strenuous activity had on health.

“Divya used to complain so much of muscle pain, joint pain, back pain,” Mr Sawhney said.

Pricing problems

“The only products out there are for the western markets — the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. And they are doing that because there is a wave of green thinking and environmentalism, not to make the lives of the poor better.”

This attitude towards green products, he said, was reflected in the price. While manual washing machines aimed at the developed countries are priced at $300 , Mr. Sawhney said he was pricing his machine at just $35 (about ₹ 2,400).

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