Pioneering low-cost washing machines bound for Iraqi refugee camps, thanks to Business West

September 10, 2021

Regional business support organisation Business West has helped innovative hand-cranked washing machines developed by a former University of Bath student reach refugee camps in Iraq.

The Washing Machine Project was founded in 2018 by Nav Sawhney after he volunteered in India and saw his neighbour struggling to handwash her clothes. 

Business West, the organisation behind Bath Chamber of Commerce and which also handles export documentation, was approached by the company when it urgently needed support to complete a Certificate of Origin – a vital international trade document which identifies the origin of the goods being exporting. 

Nav, pictured, said the firm had been struggling to get the certificate to transport its Divya washing machines for refugees and needed one at very short notice.

“We managed to turn around the documentation within a couple of days with Business West’s support,” he said. 

“This has meant that our washing machines have been able to reach people in need quicker.

“This is so important because the current traditional practice for washing clothes is done by hand and this burden is disproportionally placed on women who can spend 20 hours a week washing clothes while being at risk of injury.”

Business West said it was vital that businesses submitted the correct documentation as it could be required for a number of reasons, such as customs clearance or payment via Letter of Credit.

Business West head of international trade services Catherine Stephens said: “We can help innovative companies like The Washing Machine Project to grow their business overseas by providing export documentation support.

“With years of experience in international trade, Business West will ensure goods reach their destination without incurring extra costs.”

Nav is now working with humanitarian charity Care International with the aim of delivering 7,500 washing machines to communities most in need in countries such as Kenya, Lebanon and India.

The machine takes its inspiration, and name, from a woman in Southern India who first sparked the idea.

She explained to Nav, a former MSc Humanitarian, Conflict & Development student and an engineer by background, how such a washing machine would transform her life.

Nav came away inspired to design a machine that could wash clothes almost anywhere and help people living on the margins of society.

The Washing Machine Project was launched to exploit the invention for humanitarian purposes and with the Iraq Response Innovation Lab and Oxfam delivered the first 50 to a refugee camp of displaced people in Kurdish and Federal Iraq.

The Divya has a drum capacity of 5kg but needs just 10 litres of water per cycle – a third of that used by the average electric washing machine. It is also powered by a crank handle. Both are crucial in water and electricity-scarce humanitarian settings such as refugee camps.


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