VIDEO: Students washing machine innovation promises to transform refugee camps

A team of UK-based engineers and social entrepreneurs partnered with the Iraq Response Innovation Lab to pilot 50 ergonomic, portable, manual washing machines for families in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in Federal Iraq. 

The 50 washing machines are currently in the Oxfam offices in Erbil, Iraq, where staff are being trained on how to use the machines, ready to disseminate across refugee camps in Mosul this week.

Designed and manufactured in the UK by The Washing Machine Project the washing machines named ‘Divya’ aim to change the lives of people living in refugee camps.

Research conducted in March 2019 based on interviews with 79 Yazidi families found that only 40% of IDPs across four camps (Chameskyu, Esyan, Shekhan, and Kanke) had access to an electric washing machine.

With resources and electricity, supply is intermittent in such temporary conditions so an affordable off-grid solution is needed. Families in the camps reported that they typically spend more than 12 hours a week hand washing clothes adding to the burden of unpaid domestic work. Not only is hand washing extremely time consuming, but it also causes health problems such as chronic back and joint pain as well as skin irritation.

The manual washing machine uses approximately 20 litres of water per cycle, as opposed to the 30 litres used by the average electric washing machine, which is crucial in water-scarce humanitarian settings.

Founder and engineer Navjot Sawhney said:

“It has been amazing to work with reputable charities such as Oxfam alongside the Iraq Response Innovation Lab. The last 6-months have been an intense period of design, experimentation and development in order to prepare the Divya washing machine for the humanitarian context.

“The name of the washing machine came from my friend who I met in South India a few years ago. I want to do her justice as she taught me that having a manual washing machine would transform her life.

“I’m excited to see the Divya prototype nicknamed after my friend, be put into the hands of those who need them most in the hope that we can save them time and alleviate the physical burden of handwashing.”

In addition to not being reliant on the intermittent electricity supply typical in these contexts, our washing machines reduce the time and physical effort required compared to hand washing. The Washing Machine Project aims to ease the physical and mental burden of handwashing clothes allowing more time for women and girls to pursue other activities such as education in addition to improving their physical wellbeing.

This pilot of 50 washing machines to Iraq will transform the future of washing clothes for those that are living in a humanitarian crisis. The results from this will help to understand how people in camps use the washing machines on a long-term basis and how this affects their daily lives. The Washing Machine Project will use the results to improve the ‘Divya’ design to make it better, more sustainable and effective for the future.

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

“The Iraq Response Innovation Lab is improving humanitarian response in Iraq by supporting innovative solutions to solve locally-identified challenges. Many women who remain displaced across Iraq have told Oxfam that their time is largely consumed washing clothes by hand.

“We are thrilled to have supported the Washing Machine Project to develop and test this exciting innovation, as it halves the time and effort needed to wash clothes, and provides women with more time to help re-establish their lives post-ISIS.”