There is increasing recognition that the transfer of foreign technology to developing countries should be considered in light of broader processes of learning, technological capability, formation and industrial development. Previous studies that have looked at this in the context of cleantech industries in emerging economies tend to overlook firm-level specifics. This paper contributes to filling this gap by utilising in-depth qualitative firm-level data to analyse the extent to which the use of different learning mechanisms can explain differences in the accumulation of technological capabilities. This is explored via an examination of eight firms in the biomass power equipment industry in Malaysia during the period 1970–2011. The paper finds that firms relying on a combination of learning from foreign technology partners and internal learning by planned experimentation make most progress in terms of technological capability. Nevertheless, local spill-over effects were found to be important for some firms who learned principally from imitation of local competitors, although significantly, firms learning from local spillovers failed to advance beyond extra basic operating technological capabilities. Those firms who proactively pursued learning from foreign partners, on the other hand, advanced further, reaching basic innovative levels of technological capabilities. These findings are relevant for a wider range of industrial sectors in emerging economies.