Alumni

Alumni Profile - Navjot Sawhney

The humanitarian engineer who co-founded The Washing Machine Project, a social enterprise dedicated to designing and distributing a manual hand-cranked washing machine to displaced and low-income people around the world. "Engineers around the world have the power and responsibility to bring about change; small scale inventions will truly transform the lives of people in need."

31 January 2020

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What sparked your interest to study Engineering at undergraduate level and Aerospace Engineering at postgraduate level? What was it in particular that made you want to study both of these subjects in more depth? When I was a young boy my father, who was an aerospace engineer and who unfortunately passed away when I was 8, would take me to see air shows. I was always fascinated by the planes, these big massive objects that fly in the sky. I would be very curious to know the mechanics behind it. I would come home, secretly sneak into the cupboard where my parents kept their tools and take apart appliances at the age of 5/6. I wouldn’t really know how to put things back together again which used to make my Mum really angry, but I was curious to see how things were put together and how they functioned. This ultimately started my journey into Engineering. I studied a MEng at Queen Mary, it was the natural transition to test all of my creativity under academic rigour.

There is a trend that some Queen Mary graduates complete their postgraduate studies at another institution, what influenced your decision to continue your further study here at Queen Mary? For me Queen Mary was a very supportive and nurturing environment; I believe that the key to success is surrounding yourself with people that are going to be good for you and help you along your journey and Queen Mary did both of these things for me. The staff and the group of students that I had around me always willed me on, therefore once my undergraduate studies ended, I felt like it was too soon to leave. Another aspect of my continuation was that Queen Mary offered good research projects that sparked my interest in what I wanted to do, which was aerodynamics. I graduated in 2013 and to this day my university lecturers are on my Facebook and LinkedIn and they send me constant messages of support which is ultimately how I got flagged to you. I don’t think you necessarily get this support in other places.

Are you still in contact with any of your fellow alumni and have you come back to Queen Mary since you graduated? So just to clarify, I spent 5 years at Queen Mary, I did a MEng Aerospace Engineering degree and right now I am doing a long distance masters at Bath University on top of the masters that I gained at Queen Mary. I graduated as an engineer, but my true passion is humanitarianism, therefore the reasoning behind my current masters is that I want to couple my passion for engineering and my passion for humanitarianism. Bath University has been incredibly supportive and surprisingly, I am the only engineer on my current course - there are people that work for the UN, big charities, directors all the way to associate level and I am still the only engineer in the room! This refreshing change is really important and if you ever go onto further study or offers around the world, it is really important to have this dynamic too.

But to return to your original question, one of my dearest friends is from Queen Mary; we graduated together and he went onto Imperial and Cambridge, whereas I went into the world of work. We always reminisce about our time at Queen Mary and hold reunions and things like that. It’s really good fun. I also often get invited back to Queen Mary to do talks. I have done talks for the Engineering Societies and the Industrial Engineers Forum that is organized by the School of Engineering. I am more than happy to come back to Queen Mary and speak to current students because I know from my own experience that when you do your undergraduate degree, you can feel a bit lost as there is loads of noise everywhere. It is refreshing for someone who has been in your position to give you guidance. I think platforms like this blog really help too, it is a platform to offer advice and guidance to students. The smallest thing I can do through this blog and through coming back to give talks, is to give back to the next generations based on my own experiences.

How do you find your current studying experience – a long distance masters – compared to your previous studies at Queen Mary? There is a lot of responsibility now as there is no set time schedule - you do have deadlines but it is up to you to achieve those deadlines. I think the lecturers at Queen Mary went above and beyond for me, the camaraderie between the lecturers was really good as well. Long distance learning has its own challenges like making sure that you’re free for webinars; I also thought that I would be quite lonely but I have found the opposite. The group of friends that I have now are great; we are very like-minded – we are all humanitarians at the end of the day and we want to make the world a better place. We’ve set up our own residentials to learn around the world together; we’ve been to Jordan, the UK, Bosnia, we meet around the world and learn together. I am also the course rep – I always seem to find myself in positions of responsibility wherever I am!

Can you describe your path since graduation, the path that has led up to your current work with The Washing Machine Project? I got a graduate job at Dyson as a Research Engineer within two weeks of graduating; it was such an amazing experience to join one of the best technology companies in the UK straight out of uni and to sit in meetings with James Dyson and have the autonomy to be creative. I learnt so much about design and about the user and how they interact with products. I think Queen Mary really equipped me for all of these things. In my role I was researching into vacuum cleaners and then I moved onto next generation technology, things that weren’t out yet for five to ten years, like the hairdryer for example, which was something that we helped to create.

I was there for three years but I had this feeling inside me that I wanted to do more; I wanted to apply my skills in good ways and to stretch my degree at Queen Mary further. I took a sabbatical and joined the International Placement Programme at Engineers Without Borders UK, EWB UK. If you are successful for their programme you get sent out to one of their partners who are based all around the world, to work for them on a voluntary basis. I got sent out to South India for one year; it was such an eye opening experience, I went from creating domestic appliances for middle class people around the world for Dyson, to making clean cook stove technology for people who can’t afford gas or wood in rural South India. This is still a big problem in the world; 50% of people don’t have access to gas or electricity to cook their food so they use wood in traditional stoves which emits really bad toxic fumes which they breathe in. Unfortunately it’s the role of women to do the cooking in the house so this issue directly affects women and children. The social enterprise that I was working for was directly targeting this by making efficient cooking stoves. I found myself in this small enterprise of only ten people who were nonetheless at the forefront of their engineering; I was tasked to bring down the costs of the cook stoves from two thousand rupees, which is the equivalent of twenty pounds, to one thousand rupees, which is the equivalent of ten pounds. This figure wasn’t just pulled out of thin air, it was done with research to ascertain the buying power of women in India. It was found that for anything more than ten pounds the women would have to ask for permission from the breadwinner of the house who was often a man who often said no, as these issues didn’t tend to affect them. So ten pound was the marker for us to aim for, we set up a factory in India and we designed and developed cook stoves.

It was such an eye opening experience to go from having an idea in your head, to creating it, to then testing it out in the field within three days. This year really taught me that the people in these rural areas don’t have basic things like cooking stoves, washing machines, a light and bicycles – conveniences that should not just be for the rich, but for everyone. For a lady to breathe in toxic smoke to do such a simple thing like cooking is unacceptable. For a lady to spend 20 hours a week washing clothes on her hands and knees for her family is also unacceptable. Engineers around the world should be changing this and they have it in their power to do so. I think the adoption and the need is out there; these small scale inventions will truly change the lives of these people.

To elaborate further, I stayed in a very small, rural village with limited access to water and electricity. My neighbour was a lady called Divya; she was a good friend of mine and the only lady in the village who spoke English so we instantly hit it off. She was 31 years old at the time, with two kids and she had married at the age of 16. With the skill of English Divya could and still can apply herself in so many different ways, but instead she stays at home cooking and cleaning. These are very commendable jobs don’t get me wrong, but they are arduous; when I used to come home from work we used to spend all evening chatting whilst Divya washed and cleaned. This was the trigger for The Washing Machine Project, I thought maybe I could create something for Divya to help her out; when I spoke to her about my idea she said: ‘I want one, it would change my life’. Other simple tasks like collecting water were hard in the village – water would be switched on twice a day and I would miss the water pump timings every day due to work. Divya would turn the pump on for me and give me some of her water. The lights would also turn off past a certain point so her son had to use my cell phone light to revise and complete his schoolwork.  

Can you then describe The Washing Machine Project in your own words? I first had the idea in my head when I came back home to England. I wanted to create a washing machine, but I also had to make a living so I joined Jaguar Landrover. I work here 40 hours a week and they are very supportive of The Washing Machine Project. Parallel to this role I took up my masters as previously mentioned. I formed a team of engineers, data scientists, communication specialists and social scientists to create The Washing Machine Project. Over the last two years, what the project has been trying to do is to alleviate the burden of handwashing clothes. This is an even bigger problem than cooking as 70% of the world don’t have access to a washing machine like you or I. I wanted to really understand how deep this problem went so we have now travelled to six countries and interviewed 500 people with their washing habits in mind. We have found that the problem does in fact run very deep – washing up to 20 hours a week, 7 days a week, which can cause back pain, skin irritation, aches and rashes, chronic pain due to bending over and tiredness. We want to directly target the refugee context for now; after surveying our prototype and receiving brilliant feedback, Oxfam decided to partner with us and gave us some money to make 50 prototypes which we will be distributing in Iraq in March with the support of Care International and Oxfam and The United Nations. It will be a long three-month pilot.

We’ve further had enquiries from several countries including Uganda and Nigeria about The Washing Machine Project. This is just the very beginning and we really hope that we can help made a difference. We truly believe that we can - 40 litres is the conservative amount of water used to hand wash clothes and our prototype uses 20 litres, thus halving the usual amount of water. Our prototype also saves 90 minutes of time with its 30-minute wash cycle and alleviates skin irritation and back pain as users must stand up instead to wash clothes. That is our impact and now we must measure our impact through our pilot studies and further research.

Can you describe the support you have received along the way? It has been nice to lean on Queen Mary, I have two Queen Mary students working with me on the project. Rosemary and Adiba reached out to me after attending a talk I did at the University. It had such a big impact on their lives that Rosemary is now doing The Washing Machine Project as a third year dissertation for her engineering project. For me, this washing machine was for Divya so to see it have this impact is beyond my wildest dreams. I actually saw Divya for the first time in two years in December 2019 and briefed her on what was happening; this was at the same time that we were featured on several outlets such as ITV News, The Daily Mail, and The BBC. This period of the last few months has been incredible and our success has really been down to word of mouth and the fact that our stream of impact is a very tangent thing: no washing machine, washing machine, impact. People want to be a part of something like this, over the period of November/December 2019 when we manufactured our prototypes, 75 volunteers from all over the UK took part which was incredible!

Your LinkedIn profile states that you are also a Member of the Board of Trustees for Engineers Without Borders UK, what does this charity strive to do? What is your reasoning for being involved in such a charity? I’ve been really lucky in my career so far. Having come back from my Engineers Without Borders voluntary placement, I was nominated to sit on the Board of Directors as a trustee, working with the CER on the strategy for the next 5-10 years to come. For me, this is truly amazing, especially given the fact that I was a volunteer at Queen Mary for the Engineers Without Borders society during my studies.

The charity highlights the impact of engineers, you don’t have to make an amazing vacuum cleaner, an amazing car, or missiles – you can make really smart innovations and still be recognised. I think as a student, I wasn’t aware of this, I thought you had to join the best graduate company that you could and then you would retire 40+ years later. The charity highlights the ethical impact on engineers that given their ability to create, they need to do more to help others.

For me, to be so passionate about this is really important; I have seen Divyas all around the world and interviewed 300 refugees in 6 six different camps. I can see what these refugees want and need. As engineers we really need to get together and help these people for as long as we can. No disrespect for people working for companies, I work for a car company right now, but having the know how to understand the company that you are working for and the impact that your work is having is very important, as is being the voice of reason in meetings and suggesting new ways of doing things.

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Do one or two moments stand out in particular? I have to be honest, I actually failed my first year of engineering and it was a really traumatic time for me. I wasn’t clued up about what was going on and I wasn’t mixing in the right external circles. But then I had this kick in the right direction and this is the reason why I am so passionate about Queen Mary and my lecturers in particular, as they didn’t lose me. I had one lecturer emailing me every day and I remember when I passed retake after retake, he emailed me saying “you did it” - I still have this email. I will forever be grateful to the nurturing environment, the don’t give ups, the these are your options and all of the support I received from staff. I showed my appreciation by working for the Engineering Department, SEMS, during my studies. My time at Queen Mary was one more year than I anticipated but it was such a beautiful experience overall. I got a 40 in my first year and in my fourth year I graduated with a first class degree, rounding up to a 2.1 overall. Our final year project was one of the most successful projects in Queen Mary History and I was awarded the Tony Ade award for the most improved student when I graduated. All of my successes were down to Queen Mary, the staff, the students and my friends.

My friendship group and I described our group as The United Nations; we had a friend from every country around the world and we used to camp out in the library for 10-12 hours a day – security used to take our clothes away as they were so fed up with us! It was this supportive environment that nurtured me in the right direction and I will be forever grateful. 

How did you time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? I know I have touched on it throughout, so just to add – I actually found that the Careers and Enterprise team here were really good to me. I would set up appointments with them where they would look at my CV, do mock interviews with me and point me in the right direction of different schemes and programmes to apply for. It was really refreshing to have this space. I also worked as a student ambassador, showing prospective students around and Queen Mary would provide me with a free lunch which was always welcome at the time! The fourth year project that I did was almost like a holistic project, we set up a brand platform and then created awareness of our brand, both of which are useful to me now in my current endeavour to set up a brand for The Washing Project. The Industrial Liaison Forums also really helped me because I was forced to network with prospective companies that I was going to apply for. Overall, there was always so much going on to help students in regards to their career and life journey.

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates? Don’t worry and don’t chase after a graduate programme. There is a lot of pressure put on current students to graduate and join a graduate programme, however, just because your peers might be applying, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to. I’d recommend that every student stops and reflects as opposed to accepting the first job that they are offered. My advice to third and fourth year students going into or applying for work would be to really understand what you want to do. Ask yourself: what drives my passions and my desires?

What does the future hold for you? In terms of The Washing Machine Project or in relation to other projects? I am graduating this year in humanitarianism which is very exciting! Very exciting things are also happening in regards to The Washing Machine Project right now. I would like to use this blog as a platform to call more people into the project; if people are reading this and they would love to apply their skills, whether they be engineers, communication specialists, or whether they want to work in international development, then please get in touch. I feel like the project and the team will grow quite organically; for example, I spoke to Oxfam this morning and they want to apply for a joint proposal for another 200 washing machines! And why stop at washing machines? Another big problem is refrigeration and keeping food cold, so I have just applied for another domain name – The Refrigeration Project – with off the grid refrigeration systems in mind. So creating an enterprise that innovates for people that really need it is what the future looks like for me.   

Do you have any role models that you look up to inside or outside of your field? When I get asked this question I always mention my Mum because being a single parent from a very young age and bringing up three snotty children, was really hard for her, especially as a woman, which is why I am all for empowerment. She has always taught me to never give up and to work hard. My role models are also those who are doing really innovative things, people who run charities and who are really grafting for example. But if I had to name a particular person I would name my Mum as she ultimately taught me the ability to work hard but to not sacrifice my love and compassion for my family and friends.