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The origin of the name is believed to be an anglicised derivation of the Okpe (Urhobo) word Uriapele, named after a local deity, the shrine of which can still be found in the centre of the city. It is believed the British colonial authorities changed the name of the then hamlet to Sapele as it was easier to pronounce.
By the mid-19th century, Sapele was established as a trading centre, occasionally visited by Europeans. In 1891, the British government established a vice-consulate at Sapele. The population grew to 33,638 by 1952, because of the cosmopolitan nature of the city people from many Nigerian ethnic groups, have settled there, alongside the majority Okpe (Urhobo) these incl the Itsekiri and ijaws, as well as Urhobo people from surrounding towns and villages
Today, the city has one of Nigeria's major ports and also non-salty. Its industries include the processing of timber, rubber, and palm oil, as well as furniture, tamarind balm and footwear manufacturing. As of 1995, its population was 135,800. And as of 2005/2006, the population of this advancing city was 242,652.
The surrounding forest is made up predominantly of Entandrophragma cylindricum or Sapele, the tree to which the city lends its name. Sapele was one of Africa's largest timber producers. The African Timber and Plywood (AT&P) a division of the United Africa Company factory based in the city was once reputed to be the largest timber manufacturing complex in the world, in its prime it was the city's largest employer with an estimated 6000 employees
The Ogorode district of the city houses two of Power Holding Company of Nigeria power generation plants one of six majors in the country and the nation's second largest with an installed capacity of 1000MW as well as an NIPP power plant
- Chief Hon. Monday. O. Igbuya, A Prominent Politician.
- Chief David Dafinone, the first family of all chartered accountants, and also listed in the Guineas Book of Records.
- Chief Omuvwie a very influential industrialist.
- The Abeke family. an influential family, known to be the largest owners of real estate in Sapele
- The Oghene family another great industrialist, whom a street is named after.
- The Ayomanor family an influential family, that contributed greatly to the development of Sapele.
- Mr S O Ekpekurede a retired principal and industrialist. An educationist to the core, with very string values
- David Defiagbon, Olympic boxing silver medalist
- Peter Dedevbo , Nigerian U20- Women's National team Head Coach
- Olusoji Fasuba, top sprinter
- Ola Rotimi, playwright
- Newcome Egbedi, top fashion and marketing entrepreneur
- Blessing Okagbare, Top Athlete
- Kefee, gospel singer and composer
- Endurance Ojokolo, Top Athlete
- Akpoyibo.I.Collins,top Athlete
- Chief J. E. Ovbije, A prominent business man
- Rev. L. O. Ovbije, An ordained Preacher, Author, Investor and Educator
- Chief Asagba[Warrant Chief/an Okpe Chief]was the son of Chief Ojegba
- Chief Omarin [an Okpe Chief]was the son of Etajeme
- Godstime Udodo [a GSM engineer] the second son of samuel Udodo
- Encarta entry for Sapele
- Adogbeji Salubi, "The Origins of Sapele Township", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Dec. 1960, pp. 115-135.