Sustainable Tech for a Greater Good
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This podcast was originally aired on 12 April, 2022
We are excited to be in conversation with Navjot Sawhney on ‘Sustainable Tech for a Greater Good’, as part of our The Thought Leader’s Voice podcast series.
This series explores how independent thought leaders bring their ideas to scale within the business world as they share powerful, thought-provoking insights with our listeners. Our objective remains to amplify the voices of business leaders who share their thoughts on solving some of today’s most pressing challenges.
We are thrilled to be joined in this episode by Navjot Sawhney, Founder of the Washing Machine Project, TEDx speaker, and Member Board of Trustees at Engineers Without Borders UK.
The Washing Machine Project’s (TWMP) sole purpose is to alleviate the burden of handwashing clothes. Realising that 70% of the world’s population lacks access to an electric washing machine, TWMP is working on an accessible, portable, and affordable washing machine solution to eliminate this predicament faced by women in low-income and displaced communities.
Navjot is passionate about helping others, with a particular interest in International Development. With over five years of professional engineering experience at global technology companies, Dyson and Jaguar Land Rover behind him, now is the perfect time to combine this desire to help people with his Engineering skills.
- What are the origins of The Washing Machine Project (TWMP)? How did Navjot’s background and skills play a role in giving life to this project?
- What are the current plans for the project, and what initiatives are TWMP working towards in the coming months?
- The power of research in effecting positive change
- Strategic partnerships are crucial to this mission, enabling TWMP to use engineering for good. How have partnerships powered this project?
- Now is the time for action, in so many ways. How can the corporate world help make a difference?
Full Transcript of Podcast with Navjot Sawhney
Rachael Kinsella: Welcome to The Thought Leader’s Voice. I’m Rachael Kinsella, Editor in Chief at iResearch Services and your host today. When women rise, we all rise. Let’s engineer a more sustainable future. In keeping with our International Women’s Day discussions and providing a platform for sustainable global technology for good initiatives. We’re delighted to have Nav Sawhney, founder of the Washing Machine project, as our guest today. Seventy percent of the world’s population lacks access to an electric washing machine, something that many of us take for granted. Hand-washing clothes sound like a simple task, but for many around the world, particularly women in disadvantaged communities, it poses a significant obstacle to their well-being and livelihood. But providing displaced and low-income communities with an accessible off-grid washing solution. The mission of the Washing Machine project is to empower women within these communities with the time to take charge of their lives. And now to introduce the person that’s making all this happen. Nav was born and brought up in London, but his family are from a partitioned India. During the 1947 Indian independence, his father and his family fled their home from what is now Pakistan, with only the clothes on their backs. This has always been the foundation of why he wants to help people fleeing conflict. Whether it’s building lifesaving cookstoves in rural India, being a trustee of an international development charity - Engineers Without Borders UK, building clean water systems for an orphanage in Namibia, or volunteering his time at a local homeless shelter for migrants in London, he’s always been passionate about helping others with a particular interest in international development. With over five years of professional engineering experience, a global technology company such as Dyson and Jaguar Land Rover behind him now is the perfect moment for him to combine this desire to help people with his engineering skills. It’s really great to have you here today, Nav. A very warm welcome to The Thought Leader’s Voice. Thank you so much for joining us.
Navjot Sawhney: Thanks, Rachael. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.
Rachael Kinsella: Brilliant! thank you. So, the Washing Machine Project was born from your engineering background. Can you tell us a bit more about your story and how the project came about?
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah. So, I studied Aerospace Engineering as a undergraduate in London. At the time, I was obsessed with getting a graduate scheme. I remember I applied to probably over 200 graduate schemes, and I got a couple of job offers. And then when Dyson came calling, I kind of just jumped at the opportunity, but I didn’t really know what I was applying for. You know, I was obsessed with just getting on to the best graduate program that I could at the time, and the experience at Dyson was amazing. I was there for three years. And it was fascinating to see how you can problem-solve consumers’ issues, intuitive design, and product development for 10 years to come. But I realized that every good bit of engineering that I was doing was essentially just making a vacuum cleaner for a rich person, and I kind of got fed up with that side, questioning my self-worth and what I was doing in my life. And there’s no disrespect to the amazing engineers at Dyson or anyone else that is making some really cool things. For me, it just didn’t sit right that, you know, my engineering wasn’t helping others. There were so many things going on in the world at the time, and I wanted to help out. So, I moved to South India to make cookstoves. I went to India to make cookstoves with Engineers Without Borders UK, and this experience of making cookstoves completely changed my life. And, you know, very simple things that I took for granted, like having running water or continuous electricity or good sanitation, were just absent or very infrequent where I was living in this rural village.
The experience of making cookstoves for the bottom of the pyramid, so to speak, was eye-opening, and my next-door neighbor, a lady, called Divya, inspired me to create a solution for her. Her name was Divya, and Divya’s everyday struggle was real. It was very apparent from the moment she woke up to the moment she slept, you know, this kind of unpaid burden that she took on. And unfortunately, the disproportion is placed on women around the world, from fetching water to foraging for wood, to educating her son at home in darkness, to having to hand wash her clothes. Every kind of task that Divya had to do was just a bit harder compared to what someone in the UK would have had to have done. It meant that Divya’s opportunities were severely hampered because they were based around her daily tasks. So, she wanted to work but didn’t have the time, she spoke perfect English. She wanted to go back to university to study; she wanted to rest, she didn’t have that time. So, I promised her a solution to make one part of her daily activity a bit better, and that was a manual washing machine. And you know, this problem is widespread, and it’s not just Divya, it’s you know, over five billion families. And that promise was made in 2018, and that’s when The Washing Machine Project was born.
Rachael Kinsella: Wow! So really, on the ground problem-solving, coming up with a solution just to make a difference in one area and seeing the knock-on effects of how that can make a difference to lives more broadly. And it’s a fantastic story, it must be very rewarding to be able to use those engineering skills and that knowledge of technology to be able to create realistic solutions.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, I think so, and you know, when I wake up in the morning now, I have this extra kind of spring in my step. You know, working towards a higher purpose than my own. And you know, I’m so lucky that we now have an amazing team around us and some great partners and mentors that are also trying to help fulfill this mission and future missions going forwards.
Rachael Kinsella: That’s brilliant! How have you gone about building and creating that team? Is it volunteers? I see that you’ve got a great group of people around you as part of the project.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah. Well, I came back home in 2018. I was armed with this promise; I didn’t know anything about starting an organization, but I knew a couple of things about designing products. So, I kind of just went back to basics. We’d have meetings around my mom’s kitchen table. I kind of just grabbed the attention of some of my old friends in previous employments. And you know, at the time, it was very interesting because everyone was quite frustrated with the work that they did. You know, pushing excel sheets, and everyone wanted to do a bit more. So, I kind of tapped into all of that. Yeah, I remember this one meeting where it was me and three of my kind of humanitarian and design engineer friends said, what if we make this washing machine like a salad spinner? And that’s where we got the idea when we were in the kitchen in my mom’s house, and those kinds of things are only possible because you have good people around you that want to do good and believe in the mission.
Rachael Kinsella: Yeah.
Navjot Sawhney: And since 2018, we’ve had over 200 volunteers give 10 to 15 hours of their time from over 10 countries around the world. But now, we have a small but growing team of full-time staff members working in operations, engineering, and marketing.
Rachael Kinsella: That’s fantastic! The innovation in practice, in the informal setting, brings about meeting of minds and creativity to come up with those problem-solving ideas and growing from there. It’s a very firm foundation to work from, and it’s great to see how you’ve grown, and you’ve got those full-time team members now working across core areas of the business.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, and I think we were always wary of this place of privilege we come from. Here in the UK and in London, designing products for women in refugee camps or women in rural areas or urban areas is so abstract. And we’ve kind of attached to every kind of heavy research focused around our daily activity. So, you know, we’ve traveled to 17 countries and interviewed over 300,000 families on washing habits. Each family is a promise; each family that we speak to is a promise to make their life a little better, and each kind of insight is fed back into the future designs that we come up with.
Rachael Kinsella: I love that. It shows the importance of research and looking at solving those issues. And as you say, I love that you say each family is a promise, but it’s based on what you’re seeing on the ground and actually putting yourself in their shoes and in terms of understanding their experience and their challenges and then acting on that once you have that real-time research. That’s been a crucial element of building up the project and in doing those country visits and getting that research together. Have you been working with partners on that as well in terms of coverage for different countries and different areas?
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, I think this problem is just too big for us to handle, and we really believe in the power of partnerships from various different countries around the world. We’re not the experts. You know, there are some amazing organizations, grassroots, and international NGOs, government bodies that work diligently on the ground, that have access to refugees, know the contacts very well, conduct safe practices, and are doing it with dignity. And we’ve partnered with some of the biggest household names from Oxfam to Save the Children, to UN and UNHCR, and some kind of grassroots mom-and-pop organizations that are just trying to help their local community and everything in between. And that’s really where we love to do our work. It is actually something that was forced upon us with COVID.
Rachael Kinsella: Of course, yeah.
Navjot Sawhney: Before COVID, we would go out there and work with local organizations but now we don’t need to go out there because they can do it, and as long as we’re communicative with the output, I think it works quite well.
Rachael Kinsella: Great. So, you have people there on the ground, in countries themselves that you’ve been able to work in partnership with and keep the communication going to get that research and feedback. And also, to be able to launch new initiatives. Have you got particular initiatives planned in particular areas? Sort of, you know, what are the goals going forward?
Navjot Sawhney: Yes. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been heavily piloting our design and product. It’s a five kg manual crank handle washing machine called The Divya Washing Machine. So, we have done three pilots in Iraq and Lebanon. Really insightful stuff and each pilot has informed the next one, and we are now open for pre-order. We’ve had orders on interest from 27 countries in excess of 4000 washing machines. Now, we are in this position I call ‘the Valley of Death’ because it’s so challenging to go from pilot to scale up and finding the right contract manufacturers that would get these machines from the hundreds that we are producing now to the thousands and what we hope to achieve by the end of the year into next year. But the demand is very reassuring, and it’s all very organic right now. We’ve had a lot of help from social media and lots of PR campaigns that we’ve been doing, and I’m really excited for the future. I think there are lots of machines that you can send out to people around the world, and I’m really excited about in what more we can do and what more innovation that we can fill in the pipeline in the future, in the future, in terms of new products and innovations.
Rachael Kinsella: Brilliant! and I think there are a few key areas there, around the power of these strategic partnerships, large and small; whether they’re sort of particularly community-focused or whether they’re global organizations. There’s the PR side and the communication side, and being are able to use the research that you’ve conducted in those areas as well so that people understand what the issues are and where the potential solutions lie. I mean, it’s been great to obviously see you on TV, many of us, and on various different interviews and shows spreading the word. So, it’s obviously one of the reasons why you’re talking to us today. So, we’re delighted to be able to share your story and to be able to draw attention to what the project is doing. Are there any other areas? Of course, it’s a very turbulent time at the moment for so many reasons, and looking at sustainable solutions, are you seeing more of these sorts of corporate partnerships that are working with initiatives like your own, to start to scale up?
Navjot Sawhney: You know, I think COP26. Back in November, COP26 in Glasgow was a real pivotal moment for governments and…
Rachael Kinsella: Yes (cuts in)
Navjot Sawhney: (continues) …and corporates working together to try and tackle this climate crisis. And, you know how big fast-food chains are making vegan alternatives now. Various different activities are becoming so mainstream. It’s now cool to be vegetarian, whereas 10 years ago when I was vegan, it wasn’t. It was always difficult. And then you know, when that comes to the kind of services and products and hardware, there are two sides to this. Corporates on the government side have been pushed to do better, and the employees are holding them to account…
Rachael Kinsella: Yes
Navjot Sawhney: I think that’s kind of a very interesting watershed moment. That coupled with the SDG goals and by 2030, we have to end poverty and things like that, and that is a kind of recipe or a melting pot of huge corporates and any corporate right now looking internally and seeing how they can do better. The Washing Machine project is a very good organization where a corporate can come on board. We’ve had 40 to 100 companies come on and help us grow and scale to target four or five SDGs, and it’s been really interesting this last two years to see how corporates can make a change and make a difference with the knowledge and expertise that they already have.
Rachael Kinsella: Excellent! What would you say, would you have words of advice for corporates who are looking to do more around the SDGs, to do more in terms of corporate conscience and supporting initiatives like the Washing Machine project?
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, I think greenwashing is a very real thing and saying something and doing something is very different. It’s coming. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to do more. And it’s very, very important to stay ahead of the curve, rather than waiting for a few years and then being left behind; and we’ve seen it so many times in the past in other respects. But my advice to corporates is kind of, to study the landscape in their own industries and seeing what more they can do, I think…
Rachael Kinsella: Yes.
Navjot Sawhney: … and these skills are quite transferable to grassroots organizations and charities and social enterprises that they want to help and make a difference as well. For me, on a personal level, I am speechless when every time I think about it, you know, we’re sending rockets to Mars, and eighty-eight percent of South Sudan don’t have access to soap. For me, that’s a very big inequality that I can’t consciously ignore. And we’re seeing it right now in Ukraine, where all of this is going to be played out in front of our eyes, and we’re here, we’re witnessing it, and the same goes for Yemen and Palestine, Syria and Somalia; and what happened in Myanmar and Bangladesh. We’re seeing it, and we will be held to account in the future. I think it’s such a good time for corporates to come on board, pick an SDG and just trying to help in any way they can.
Rachael Kinsella: Yeah, absolutely. As you say, COP26 has been this watershed moment where it actually started to drive actions rather than just words. Obviously, it spawned multiple commitments. There were many from the G7 before that, but firms are really stepping up now and starting to take action. As you say, pick an SDG or several and work towards them and study the industries that they operate in and how they interact with the environment, different communities in that capacity, and then look at where they can affect positive change. As you rightly say, greenwashing is an enormous problem; in particular industries, it’s across the board. But we’ve done research over the past year that has just highlighted the predominance of greenwashing in financial services and technology in particular. But again, there are organizations large and small within those industries who are striving to make a difference and have made very firm commitments that they’re backing up with action. I think just a lot more to be done, but as you say, it’s kind of going down the slope and gathering momentum, and things are starting to change.
Navjot Sawhney: And the problem is what will happen is if you don’t do that. The consumers are becoming much more conscious they would rather spend more money to be ethical than less money knowing that their kind of salaries are going to help organizations that are toxic for the environment or the world and the people and planet. We’re saying it’s not like that is not happening en masse, but you know, cancel culture is a huge thing now, you say or do a wrong thing now your brand could be finished. Unfortunately, that has its positives and negatives, but I think when it comes to the environment, corporates will have their day of reckoning.
Rachael Kinsella: I think you’re right, and it’s again something else that’s come up in our research time and again that consumers are demanding more ethical suppliers across all fronts. Whether that’s within the business-to-business space, looking across the supply chain, whether it’s actual, end consumers who are demanding more ethical goods, products, services, and looking at the provenance, looking at how the organizations that they’re interacting with are benefiting the community. What are they doing to try and help the environment? What’s their overall background and footprint? And are they actually doing what they say? Is their greenwashing going on? And if it is, customers are calling it out, and we’re seeing that more and more.
And again, it’s something that it’s a bit of a wake-up call for the corporate world and hopefully will help to shape through customer demand and through employee demand. It’s really starting to shape how various different organizations operate, and in that sense, it’s a very positive thing.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, I think so, and just to kind of flip that on the head and bring it back to The Washing Machine Project, we’re designing products for people who have had little to no impact on the environment. These people have had little to no impact on the environment and these people are in situations that are not their fault in some instances, and their main focus isn’t the environment. their main focus is to survive and prosper. So, I don’t know if you’ve read it [Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth] but about the doughnut economics of living in our planetary boundaries I think there is a balance we have to plbut actually lifting out the billion people that are still starving today.
Navjot Sawhney: (continues) … so that everyone strives on, everyone prospers, but within our planetary boundaries. I think there’s a balance that we have to play, and you know it. I’ll be honest, we kind of accidentally stepped into this kind of sustainability conversation. It wasn’t our primary focus. Our mission is to alleviate the burden of unpaid labor, and however, that will come around. It’s just that we’re making off-the-grid washing machines because it works well, and that’s really important to have that balance, I think.
Rachael Kinsella: Yeah, it’s a very important point and raising awareness of people who are still in that situation; they’re fighting to survive and struggling against numerous challenges. So, it’s while that is part of the SDGs and part of the combined global approach, it serves to highlight the stark inequalities that you were talking about earlier, and we mustn’t forget that when we’re looking at doing good from a corporate sense. I think that’s a very important point.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah.
Rachael Kinsella: I think we’ve managed to cover off an awful lot already. Is there anything else that you would like to share with us in terms of your current plans for the project and where you’re taking it to next? Or is it sort of early days in terms of some of your planning?
Navjot Sawhney: So, 12,000 washing machines next year is the aim, and the goal is going to a team of about 15, I think. If all goes well next year, then we will add new products. So, refrigeration is something that we’ve always been quite interested in – off-the-grid refrigeration and how we can innovate around refrigeration, air conditioning, lighting - those kinds of things is our kind of product portfolio in the next five to 10 years.
Rachael Kinsella: Well, that’s very exciting.
Navjot Sawhney: Our mission is to become a global leader in humanitarian innovation. So, across various different products, agnostic, so to speak, and we want to become the titan of the humanitarian world.
Rachael Kinsella: That’s fantastic! I think that’s a really impressive mission to have, and it sounds like with everything that you’re doing, you’re really well on your way to continuing to develop new products, new solutions, and helping many more people. So that’s really fantastic.
Navjot Sawhney: Yeah, and for me, it’s quite surreal having this conversation because all I wanted to do was make a washing machine for my next-door neighbor. I think keeping in mind the end-user, trying to help every single family that we talk to, and giving back the dignity of clean clothes. I think the mission, whether we make 100 washing machines or 100,000 washing machines, you know impact is impact, and I think that’s very, very fulfilling for me personally.
Rachael Kinsella: Absolutely! Fantastic! Thank you very much, Nav. It’s been really great talking to you today. Best of luck with everything. We’ll keep in touch and keep checking in on progress and wish you and your team every success with the great work that you’re doing. Thank you.
Navjot Sawhney: Thank you so much, Rachael.