Fifty new low-cost washing machines designed by a University of Bath student will be installed at a refugee camp in Northern Iraq this week.

Created to alleviate the burden of hand-washing clothes for displaced people, the arrival of the ‘Divya’ hand-cranked machines from the UK in Iraq will mark a milestone for ‘The Washing Machine Project’.

A social enterprise, ‘The Washing Machine Project’ is the brainchild of University of Bath MSc Humanitarianism, Conflict & Development student, Nav Sawhney – an engineer by background who now uses his design skills to help families living on the margins.

Against a backdrop of rare or intermittent supplies of both electricity and water, Nav’s manual-drive washing machine was inspired by the back-breaking stories he heard of families living in refugee camps struggling to hand-wash clothes, which can take individuals more than 12 hours a week. Not only is hand washing extremely time consuming, it also adds to the burden of unpaid domestic work and can lead to chronic back and joint pain.

The Divya washing machine takes its inspiration and name from the woman in Southern India who first sparked the idea. She explained to Nav how a washing machine like this would transform her life. Now, the long-term hope is that increasing access to Divya washing machines could free up time for women, and young girls in particular, to pursue education.

The 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. This is crucial in water-scarce humanitarian settings like refugee camps. Powered by crank-handle, the Divya does not have to rely on an electricity supply.

Having partnered with the Iraq Response Innovation Lab and Oxfam, ‘The Washing Machine Project’ team will this week install 50 Divyas to help families in camps of displaced people in Kurdish and Federal Iraq.

Nav Sawhey explained: ‘Since The Washing Machine Project’s formation in 2018, we have travelled to five countries and interviewed 500 families on their clothes washing habits, and strived to keep future users at the heart of everything we do. The worst thing for us would be to produce something that no one uses, which is why we spend so much time with our beneficiaries. Our team has also grown to include dedicated volunteer professionals with skills and expertise in NGOs (non-governmental organisations), communications, data science, engineering and organisational development.

“In March 2019, we were lucky enough to be invited out to Kurdish Iraq by Care International, where we conducted a week-long field trial with two of our prototypes with 79 families in five IDP camps. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and we were given some useful direction on how we could further improve our design. We have developed partnerships with large international NGOs and a funding pipeline.

“What drives us forward is a common goal to make the world a better place with the skills we have. The exciting thing is that we’re only just getting started."

Dr Oliver Walton, Director of Studies for the MSc in Humanitarianism, Conflict and Development at the University of Bath, added: “We have been really excited to follow the progress of Nav’s project since he started his Master’s degree here. As an engineer who has been able to apply his technical skills to a humanitarian setting, Nav’s experience really encapsulates what we are trying to achieve with this course. We want to provide students with in-depth knowledge and skills to work in humanitarian settings and build strong networks of people from varied backgrounds with a shared passion for working in the field of conflict and humanitarian response.

“Another great feature of The Washing Machine Project is the fact that it has been able to draw on a number of other students on the course who are already skilled practitioners, while also providing volunteering opportunities to students with less experience.”

Response Innovation Lab Manager in Iraq, Nathalie Rami, who has been instrumental in getting the project off the ground, said: “The Iraq Response Innovation Lab is very pleased to provide seed funding to The Washing Machine Project and support young entrepreneurs bringing innovative solutions to the humanitarian sector. The Washing Machine Pilot project is likely to improve the life of displaced women and girls affected by crisis in Iraq.”

The Divyas were made with the help of 50 volunteers in November and December. The team have now set up an ambitious crowd-funding call to action to help them push the project to the next level. You can contribute to their crowd-funding efforts at