Navjot Sawhney: The Inventive Humanitarian Changing Lives One Spin at a Time

by Manjari Singh

Beneath the iconic spires of London’s Downing Street, an extraordinary gathering took place. Among the esteemed guests was a trailblazer who leveraged his engineering prowess to better the lives of thousands around the globe. This individual, Navjot Sawhney, is an Indian-origin Sikh engineer, and the recent recipient of the prestigious Points of Light Award.

Sawhney’s story is an inspirational tale of passion, innovation, and deep-seated compassion. Born in London to Indian parents, Sawhney pursued a career in engineering, landing a prestigious role at Dyson, the technology firm globally recognized for its innovative vacuum cleaners. However, his life took a transformative turn when he volunteered with “Engineers Without Borders” in southern India.

While there, Sawhney was struck by the disproportionate burden placed on women to carry out handwashing. This seemingly mundane chore was a demanding, time-consuming task that prevented women from pursuing education and employment. Determined to help, Sawhney leveraged his engineering skills to design a hand-cranked, off-grid, fully sustainable washing machine, dramatically reducing water consumption by 50% and saving up to 75% on time compared to handwashing.

Named after his neighbour, Divya, the washing machine marked the genesis of the Washing Machine Project, an initiative aimed at producing these devices on a larger scale. To date, over 300 “Divya” machines have been distributed worldwide, benefiting more than 1,000 families in underdeveloped countries and refugee camps, including Ukrainian families living in humanitarian aid centres in Poland.

For his incredible work, Sawhney was awarded the Points of Light Award by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The award honours outstanding volunteers who have made significant contributions to their community. Sunak, in a personal letter to Sawhney, praised his “ingenuity and compassion,” stating, “Your innovative, hand-cranked washing machines are giving families the dignity of clean clothes and the time you are saving them is empowering many women who have been held back from education and employment.”

This recognition has propelled Sawhney onto the global stage, leading him to the impending Coronation lunch at Downing Street, hosted by Prime Minister Sunak and First Lady Akshata Murty. This event, part of the nationwide initiative called The Big Lunch, aims to bring communities together to celebrate the Coronation.

Sawhney’s story serves as a reminder that innovation is not just about flashy gadgets or sophisticated software. It can be as simple as a hand-cranked washing machine, engineered with empathy and purpose. His invention is more than just a device; it’s a tool that gives back time, dignity, and opportunity to disadvantaged communities worldwide.

Navjot Sawhney’s journey from a London-born engineer to a global humanitarian is a testament to the power of ingenuity and compassion. His relentless dedication to improving the lives of others serves as an inspiration, offering a beacon of hope in our increasingly complex world. As he attends the special Coronation lunch at Downing Street, his incredible journey and impactful work stand as a shining example of the transformative power of engineering when used to uplift humanity.

Manjari Singh

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