Biomass burning has links with a number of global concerns including soil health, food security and climate change. In central Côte d'Ivoire (West Africa), we conducted a field study to compare nutrient losses, soil fertility and yam yield in slash-and-burn versus slash-and-mulch agriculture. Trials involved five sites established in the dominant Chromolaena odorata fallows of the region, each consisting of paired plots: slash and burnt biomass (SB) versus slashed and unburnt biomass, but left to serve as mulch (SM). Carbon and five elemental nutrients were assessed in the aboveground biomass prior to burning and in ash after fires; losses were assessed by subtraction. The greatest proportions of loss occurred with C (95%), N (95%) and K (74%), corresponding to losses into the atmosphere of 3532 ± 408, 200 ± 36, 132 ± 36 kg ha−1. Six weeks after the fire, soil properties were assessed: soil organic C, total N and Mg2+ were higher in SM than in SB sites. At final harvest, yam tuber yield was twice as large in SM as in SB (18 ± 4 vs. 9 ± 2 Mg ha−1) with soil C, total N and K+ as the main influential soil parameters. The key finding was that the elements lost in greatest proportion during burning were those mostly influencing yam yields. Because a clear negative relationship between biomass burning and yam production has been established the promotion of the more productive, alternate slash-and-mulch system compared to slash-and-burn system, is warranted. The findings of our research can be used in support of developing a sustainable yam production system in the region and in West Africa more generally.