People pedaling their way to clean clothes

One of the most insightful books I’ve read over the years is Your Money or Your LIfe, by Vicky Robin and Joe Dominguez. It was an instant bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list, and has sold steadily ever since.

Vicky Robin has been focused on sustainability for a long time. In fact, that’s how she came to write that book. “I call sustainability an extreme sport,” she says on her blog. “I think it’s cool to get into a hot issue by living the solution, not just conjecturing. My first book, Your Money or Your Life, came out of living as much by my wits and as little by money as I could. I wanted to question our dependency on money and on buying stuff.”

And what I realized, as I was reflecting on the concept of ‘frugal invention’ today, is that this conscious choice is something that unites many of us across the divides of geography and socio-economic status. When you can’t afford to buy something, and you live in a community or a household that is not well-off, you have to be creative – and that means being frugal.

Nav Sawhney with a Divya manual drive washing machines. University of Bath photo

There is no better example of this, to my mind, than the many creative ways people have invented for women to wash clothes without an electric washing-machine.

The BBC recently had a story about The Washing Machine Project. The man behind it is Nav Sawhney, a British engineer whose father fled India as a refugee during the 1947 partition. Nav, who grew up and was educated in Britain, went to south India in 2017 as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders international program, working on a project to make clean and efficient cookstoves in a small village. That experience changed his life, he says, because it introduced him to a different reality.

He saw his neighbour Divya doing the backbreaking work of washing her family’s clothes by hand, while on her knees, and he decided to do something about it while working on his graduate studies at the University of Bath. He was washing lettuce one day in a salad spinner when the idea for the hand-cranked, non-electrical washing machine came to him.

The washing machine is made from off-the-shelf parts that are reusable, and can be fixed anywhere. Fifty of the Divyas are now at work in the Jeddah 5 refugee camp in northern Iraq and by 2023, he hopes to have the washing machines in 10 countries, serving 100,000 people. It was designed after consulting with refugee families, which are often large, so it has a large drum to was a lot of clothes at one time.

When I watched that story, it reminded me of how the Honey Bee Project had discovered a bicycle-powered washing machine invented by a 14-year-old Indian girl, Remya Jose, who wanted to keep doing her school work while doing household chores, and so I went looking for that story.

Here is the Borgen Project‘s version:

“She drew a diagram of it and her father took it to a nearby auto shop and asked workers to build it using his daughter’s instructions. The machine looks like a stationary bicycle connected to a metal box. It is composed of aluminum and has a horizontal cylinder in the center made of iron net wire.

To wash clothes, users put them into the cylinder, fill the box with water and detergent. The user then pedals for three to four minutes which rotates the cylinder at a very high speed with the clothes inside, cleaning them thoroughly. The soapy water drains out, the barrel is refilled and the process repeated.

There are many benefits to using the machine. First and foremost, it doesn’t require electricity in a region where electricity is rare. Second, it saves time. Washing clothes in the region took hours prior to the invention of Jose’s machine. With the machine, it takes about 30 minutes. Third, it can be used for exercising. The bicycle that powers it gives the user a workout. Fourth, it’s cheap. It costs about Rs.2000. Finally, it is mobile. One can pick it up and go. This is very practical for rural areas where it is used.” Here is what it looked like in action.

Now in her 20’s, Remya worked as a serial innovator for the National Innovation Foundation in India.

And in the course of looking for it, I found…Spincycle.

“Richard Hewitt, a product design student at Sheffield Hallam University, devised the idea for the SpinCycle while volunteering at an orphanage in Burundi, Africa. Hewitt experienced how tedious and time-consuming it was to wash over 30 loads of children’s clothes by hand. He became dedicated to finding a more efficient solution. In 2010, Hewitt invented the SpinCycle: a bicycle-powered portable washing machine. He customized the machine to easily attach to the back of a bicycle so users could wash their clothes while also getting exercise, saving time and money. Another advantage of this bicycle-powered solution is that it can easily circulate throughout small communities to ensure that everyone’s laundry is washed quickly and affordably.”

He soon saw that his college project offered possibilities for creating a ‘micro-enterprise’, and so he designed it to save time, energy and water for those who lack access to such basic necessities, as well as being practical for people who live without electricity. 

In 2018, a man travelling around on a bicycle worked with a school class in Matandani School in southern Malawi to build a bicycle-powered washing machine.

Creative people like Sheikh Jahangir in India have used a version of this idea to create a business, as Anil Gupta explained in his 2010 TED talk. “If you have clothes, and you don’t have enough time to wash them, he brought a washing machine to your doorstep, mounted on a two-wheeler.  … He is washing your clothes and drying them at your doorstep. You bring your water, you bring your soap, I wash the clothes for you. Charge 50 paisa, one rupee for you per lot, and a new business model can emerge.”

If you search now on the internet, you will find many stories about bicycle-powered hand washing machines, because it is an idea that unites people living in poor villages, refugee camps, and people in North America and Europe who have chosen to live off-grid. And that is the power of frugal innovation….


to Navjot Sawhney for being awarded a Points of Light Award from British premier Rishi Sunak. Mr Sawhney is the 1,975th winner of the Points of Light Award and the daily winner for Thursday 26 January 2023, the BBC reported. He will receive a letter from the Prime Minister and a certificate in recognition of the work done by the Washing Machine Project.


Meet the Engineer Creating Off-Grid Manual Washing Machines That Empower Low-Income Communities. Nice News, Feb. 2, 2023.