Young social entrepreneurs making waves with water-saving manual washing machine in IDP camps in Iraq

Young social entrepreneurs making waves with water-saving manual washing machine in IDP camps in IraqThe Washing Machine Project

In March 2019, Navjot Sawhney and Alex Hughes, both engineers and co-founders of the fledgling social enterprise The Washing Machine Project conducted research into clothes-washing habits across four IDP camps in Northern Iraq. Only 40% of IDPs living in the camps had access to an electric washing machine, meaning the majority of families still wash their clothes by hand. SONY DSC

In fact, of the 79 Yazidi families interviewed during their research in Chameskyu, Esyan, Shekhan, and Kanke camps, Sawhney and Hughes found that each family typically spends more than 12 hours a week hand washing clothes.

Many women also reported using chlorine or other chemical detergents to kill water-based bacteria with the aim of keeping their children safe, but suffered from skin irritation on their hands and arms as a result.

Not only is hand washing extremely time consuming, it also adds to the burden of unpaid domestic work that typically falls on women around the globe, and can lead to chronic back and joint pain in the long-term.

Having access to a washing machine can free up time for women and girls to pursue other activities such as education, which is a key aim of The Washing Machine Project.

To help achieve this goal, Sawhney and Hughes have developed an innovative, portable, manual washing machine that also uses less water per cycle (only 10 litres as opposed to the 30 litres used by the average electric washing machine) which is crucial in water scarce humanitarian settings.

Of course, this off-grid solution doesn’t rely on the intermittent electricity supply common in these contexts either, and reduces the time and physical effort required compared to hand washing.

The new washing machine prototype is named after a woman called Divya, who befriended Sawhney during his time working in Southern India with the social enterprise Prakti.

Co-founder Navjot Sawhney said: “To have reputable charities such as Oxfam and World Vision place their faith in us and support us with this grant is an extraordinary feeling. I really want to do justice to Divya, the friend I made I met in Tamil Nadu in India, who explained to me that having a washing machine would transform her life, and inspired us to create one that saves time and alleviates the physical burden of hand washing.”

Even beyond washing machines, however, the project aims to tackle a wider issue in humanitarian WASH. Typically, sector priorities for crisis response include sanitation and hygiene but exclude longer term WASH solutions focused on improving quality of life and supporting livelihoods, despite millions of people remaining in refugee and IDP camps for years at a time.

The Washing Machine Project is now partnering with Oxfam and World Vision’s Iraq Response Innovation Lab to pilot 50 water-saving, portable, manual washing machines to families in the IDP camps in Kurdish and Federal Iraq.

The Response Innovation Lab Manager in Iraq, Nathalie Rami, said:

“The Iraq Response Innovation Lab is very pleased to provide Seed funding to The Washing Machine Project and support young entrepreneurs to bring innovative solutions to the humanitarian sector. The Washing Machine Pilot project, if successful, is likely to improve the life of displaced women and girls affected by crisis in Iraq.”

In future, Sawhney and Hughes hope to market The Divya at an affordable price of around $35, as a sustainable investment for families who cannot afford an electric washing machine and the accompanying costs of repairs.

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